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2019-20 MAC Men’s Basketball Team Preview: Toledo Rockets

Reigning MAC West champs look to take advantage of Buffalo’s graduations.

NCAA Basketball: Toledo at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Toledo Rockets enter the 2019-20 NCAA mens basketball season, looking for their third consecutive twenty win season after winning 25 games a year ago and 23 game in 2017-18.

Despite these lofty win totals, the Rockets have little hardware on their shelves due to the emergence of the Buffalo Bulls, who beat the Rockets in the 2018 MAC championship game.

The Rockets found themselves in the NIT last season before losing to in-state foe Xavier.

The Rockets enter 2019-20 with a strong case to win their third straight MAC West crown with three returning starters losing Jaelan Sanford and Nate Navigato from last years squad.

Junior point guard Marreon Jackson returns after averaging 11.7 points per game to go with 4.2 assists in a season during which Jackson earned honorable mention all-league honors. Jackson spent most of the summer recovering from a shoulder injury and was not cleared until September for contact.

Center Luke Knapke may be someone who opposing fans love to hate but he is someone that the Rocket faithful love. The lean 6’11 senior is one of the MAC’s most experienced players after making 52 starts during his career in Toledo.

Knapke may also be the MAC’s most versatile shooters with a 41 percent mark from three and a 62 percent shooter from two. Oh, and he’s 73 percent from the charity stripe in his career. Expect Knapke to challenge for all-MAC honors.

The third returning Rocket starter is Willie Jackson. Jackson, a 6-6 senior forward, is a former Missouri transfer. He made 30 starts a season ago while averaging 8.5 points per game, and 8.9 rebounds. He may be one of the MAC’s most complete players. He could be asked to play more of a power forward role this season.

Long before the season ever started, the Rockets suffered their first loss. Projected starter AJ Edu suffered a knee injury during an international tournament for the Philippines. The loss came shortly after a season which saw Edu being named to the MAC’s all-freshman team.

True freshman Mattia Acunzo, another power forward, will reportedly miss time after breaking his foot, an injury which bothered him in high school. The 6’7 freshman was born in Italy. The Toledo coaching staff raved about him after his commitment so expect him to see time once he is healthy.

6-5 Junior Dylan Anderson served as UT’s starter at small forward in their exhibition victory against Hillsdale College. He scored 11 points aided by being 3 of 3 from three in that game but saw very limited action a year ago.

Jaelan Sanford, one of the best to ever play at Toledo, graduated and is off to the NBA’s G-League as he was selected in their draft last week.

Spencer Littleson, a 6’4 junior, who previously transferred from Duquense, will look to fill his shoes. Littleson plays a lot like Sanford as he is an excellent three point shooter.

6-5 guard Keshaun Saunders should also see time after redshirting last season behind the Rockets immense wing depth. He is yet another NCAA player who hails from Canada as more and more Canadians are taking to the hard wood.

Forward Luke Maranka saw solid minutes in the exhibition victory and has an interesting story. Maranka was home schooled from Hudsonville, Michigan. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk only learned about him through friends who had seen him play. He projects as a backup to Knapke.

6’8 redshirt freshman TJ Smith returns to provide depth. True freshman Aaron Etherington profiles similarly to what UT will miss from losing Navigato but is probably a year away. Another freshman Donavan Moore rounds out the roster but could be just one Marreon Jackson shoulder injury away from seeing decent minutes.

Tod Kowalczyk has proven to be one of the MAC’s better coaches, compiling a 144-118 record across eight years in the Glass City. He will look to lead Toledo to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure.

Savage Arena has undergone numerous renovations in recent years, including a new court paint job for this season. It has become among the nicer venues in the MAC.

Toledo gets strong fan support, especially from their student fan group The Blue Crew, who help to make Savage Arena among the MAC’s best home court advantages.

After beating Hillsdale in preseason play, the Rockets will open up against fellow mid-majors in Valparaiso and Marshall.

Interestingly enough, UT will play Marshall twice this season once in the MABC invitational and also once at Savage Arena. Marshall is coached by Mike D’Antoni’s brother Dan. The Thundering Herd won the CIT postseason tournament a year ago.

Toledo will travel on the road to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 21st. This could be a sneaky upset chance for Toledo as ND won just 14 games a season ago.

In-state foe Wright State will visit Savage Arena. The Raiders won 21 games a season ago and appeared in the NIT.

Toledo will travel to Bradley at the end of December to face an NCAA tournament team from a year ago.

MAC play will be highlighted by the home and home series against hated rival Bowling Green, who is another favorite in the MAC. UT will host BGSU on January 25th and travel down I-75 for a rematch on February 8th.

Reigning MAC champion Buffalo comes to Toledo on February 15th.

Keep an eye on Toledo’s matchups with Eastern Michigan. Eastern may not be projected to make much noise in the MAC but their matchups against Toledo in recent years have been intense and among the MAC’s best. We will see if this continues minus EMU antagonist James Thompson IV.

Kowalczyk’s squad has been close but not quite in recent years. With a projected step back from Buffalo, Toledo looks as likely as any (other than maybe BGSU) to win the MAC.