The Toledo Rockets are one of only seven teams to win at least 24 games in each of the last four seasons. The six other schools are top tier programs: UConn, Baylor, Duke, Notre Dame, Stanford and Gonzaga. The Rockets have won a combined 102 games since the start of the 2009 season including a 24-2 mark with three regular season games remaining this year.
Yet Toledo still can’t break into the upper reaches of any of the major polls. They are on the outside looking in for a Top 25 spot in the AP Poll. ESPN’s Mid Major Poll has them 8th in the country and the College Insider Mid Major Poll, voted on by coaches, actually saw them drop two spots this week from #4 to #6 despite beating Central Michigan (who was ranked 16th and fell to 24th with the loss).
Is it small school bias or is there a reason Toledo continues to be overlooked in favor of teams with two or three times as many losses? The answer most likely lies in Toledo’s weak strength of schedule. Those three words seem to some like prejudice against small schools with big talent but the reality is that Toledo plays in an incredibly weak conference this season and their non-conference slate of games has turned out to be weak as well.
Let’s look at the records of all Toledo’s opponents to date (Feb. 27th, 2013), sorted by winning percentage:
|Prairie View A&M||12||14||.462|
The Rockets have only played two quality non-conference games all season. They lost to Dayton (24-1, #12 AP) and beat Charlotte (22-4), both games played on the road. Aside from those two games, the rest of Toledo’s non-conference opponents are either barely playing .500 basketball or worse. Out of the 13 schools Toledo played before the MAC season started, five teams are actually struggling to win just 30% of their matchups (Colorado State, Nevada, St. Bonaventure, Milwaukee and Evansville).
The picture in the MAC isn’t much better. While the top teams in the league have good records the bottom half drags the whole conference down. The following teams have winning percentages equal or lower than the worst non-conference opponents Toledo faced: Buffalo, Ohio, Kent State, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois.
The reality of the top tier MAC teams becomes clearer when you take the bottom schools into account. Things just got easier for the average schools when their level of competition dropped. Central Michigan and Ball State didn’t begin winning games until MAC play started and those two teams are considered to be Toledo’s signature wins in the West. So while the Chippewas and Cardinals are both 10-3 in the MAC and tied for second place their overall records are weak and don't help Toledo's cause any.
The two solutions to Toledo's problem are to wait for the MAC to improve as a whole or take matters into their own hands and start putting together stronger non-conference schedules. The common refrain from the Toledo faithful is that no one is willing to play the Rockets so they are forced to schedule games against lower competition. There is probably some truth to that but I think the reality is that no one is willing to play the Rockets in Toledo and the university has no interest in taking home games off their schedule.
Central Michigan is a high level MAC school that was favored by some to win the West during the preseason and they scheduled non-conference games against current Top 25 opponents (Notre Dame, Purdue and Texas). Toledo chose to host non-conference tournaments at home against weak schools instead.
At this point in the year, if there is any hope of a Top 25 finish, the only thing Toledo can do is keep winning ball games to close out the regular season. Even one slip up against statistically inferior competition will dash any hopes of the Rockets landing in the Top 25 and, quite possibly, even acquiring an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament should they fail to win the MAC Tournament.