Meaningful men’s basketball is returning to Toledo! After last year’s post-season ban the Rockets have finally rid themselves of the stink of Gene Cross and enter into the 2013-14 season with high expectations and a roster full of returning veterans, intriguing freshmen and highly touted transfer students looking to get back on the court after a year watching from the sidelines.
Last Season’s Results
Toledo finished last year with a 15-13 record (10-6 MAC) and tied Western Michigan for the MAC West title in a season in which they were ineligible for post-season play and had a shortened schedule. It was effectively a lost year for the Rockets basketball program and its players and staff thanks to the sanctions imposed against them.
The Rockets roster this year will be missing four faces from last season. Starting guard Dominique Buckley (28 games, 9.7 PPG) has graduated. Forward Reese Holliday (28 games, 7.8 PPG, 4.6 rebounds) transferred out and walk-on center Richard Wonnell (28 games, 1.0 PPG, 2.1 rebounds) and walk-on forward James Ewing (8 games, 0.3 PPG, 0.4 rebounds) both left the team over the summer.
Toledo returns four starters in Rian Pearson, Julius Brown, Matt Smith and Nathan Boothe. Pearson and Smith will be seniors while Brown is a junior and Boothe is entering his sophomore season after a standout performance as a freshman for the Rockets.
Pearson led the team in all of the statistical categories you care about: 17.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 172 field goals made, 207 free throws attempted. Matt Smith has a shooter’s touch and led the team in three point shooting at a 44.4% clip last year. Unfortunately, rebounds don’t come naturally for Smith even with his 6’7” frame and his 3.6 per game average needs to increase in his final year in Toledo.
Brown averaged 13.1 points and 6.0 assists in 2012-2013. Boothe, averaged 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game during his first year with Toledo and projects to improve upon those numbers as a sophomore.
The big name additions to the roster this season are two junior transfers: forward J.D. Weatherspoon (Ohio State) and guard Justin Drummond (Loyola). Weatherspoon saw limited action in his two seasons at OSU so his numbers are far from excellent but he comes to Toledo with a reputation for high athleticism. For a good time, search YouTube for “j.d. weatherspoon dunks.” Drummond was the MAAC Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-2012 at Loyola after averaging 10.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and will look to quickly replace Buckley in the starting lineup.
Zach Garber, Jordan Lauf and Jonathan Williams are the new freshmen on this year’s roster. Garber is a 6’9” center that averaged 23 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game during his senior season at Vanlue High School in Carey, Ohio. Lauf is 6’5” and plays guard. He put up averages of 21.6 points and 9.4 rebounds a game for Napoleon High School last year. Williams, also a guard, is the shortest of the new recruits at 6’3” and was ranked the 15th best player in Michigan after averaging 32 points and 8 rebounds per game during his senior year at Southfield-Lathrup High School.
This will be Tod Kowalcyzk’s fourth year as head coach in Toledo and, so far, he’s done an excellent job turning the entire program around from the aforementioned days of Gene Cross. Player grades are up, wins are up and interest in the program locally and nationally appears to be up as well. A lot of his early success can be attributed to Pearson and Smith who came along with him from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay but moving forward a lot is riding on his recent recruiting moves. If the three new freshmen and two transfers don’t pan out things could go south quickly for the Rockets and Kowalcyzk.
Games to Watch
The Rockets have a handful of quality games on their non-conference schedule this year but, unfortunately for season ticket holders, the best ones are played on the road. They travel to Massachusetts on November 14th to take on Boston College for their first away game of the season. Toledo then travels to Kansas on December 30th to presumably get demolished by Andrew Wiggins and the Jayhawks in Lawrence before starting MAC play. In between Boston College and Kansas are good matchups against Detroit (away on November 23rd, home on December 4th), Florida Atlantic (away on November 24th), and Cleveland State (home on December 21st).
Their 18-game MAC schedule features the usual suspects for big games but this year they all feature in the month of February. The Rockets face Bowling Green at home on the 5th and then again at BG on the 20th and a home-and-away set with Ohio (away on February 1st, home on February 12th). Their only game against Akron is on the road on January 18th.
The Bottom Line
CollegeInsider.com has the Rockets at No. 23 in their Mid-Major Poll and College Sports Madness considers Toledo to be the best team in the conference (although I suspect Akron and their fans will have something to say about that). USA Today ranked Toledo as the 58th best team in the nation. In order to meet that kind of preseason praise Toledo will need continued production from their returning starters while at the same time getting results from Weatherspoon and Drummond that show they were worth the wait. Anything they can get out of the three freshmen would probably be considered icing on the cake as Toledo tries to finally return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980.