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MAC Men's Basketball Preview: Toledo Rockets

After losing three starters to graduation, the Rockets will lean on youth this season

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Toledo Rockets were the consensus pick to win the MAC Championship a season ago with aspirations to end an NCAA Tournament drought that dated back to 1980. Unfortunately, the Rockets fell short of those lofty pre-season expectations losing to Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament semifinals, thus ending a season that never quite garnered the momentum and results that many expected.

As the Rockets look towards the 2015-2016 season, they will be doing so without the services of many of the key contributors that helped lead the midnight blue and gold to a combined 47 victories over the last two seasons. Lost to graduation are guards Julius "Juice" Brown and Justin Drummond as well as power forward J.D. Weatherspoon.

The trio combined to average over 42 points per game during the 2014-2015 season, which saw Brown recognized as a First Team All-MAC performer and Drummond and Weatherspoon as Third Team All-Mac performers. Brown’s loss will be incredibly challenging to replace as the point guard started all 131 games he participated in for the Rockets and graduated as the schools third all-time leading scorer and ranks second all-time in assists.

Head Coach: Tod Kowalczyk, 6th Year (85-78, 43-41 MAC)

After a very successful eight-year run at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Tod Kowalczyk took over as the head men’s basketball coach at Toledo prior to the 2010-2011 season. Following a challenging 4-28 season in his first year guiding the Rockets, "Coach K" has led an incredibly swift resurrection of the men’s basketball program at Toledo.

The Rockets have averaged over 20 wins a season the last four seasons, including a 42-26 record in conference play. While featuring a style that has not been hesitant to push the pace offensively, the Rockets have finished no worse than second in the MAC West during the last four years with appearances in the MAC tournament semifinals the last two seasons. The 2014-2015 season saw Toledo record its second consecutive 20 win season, marking the first time the Rockets had done so since winning 20 or more five straight years from 1976-81.

2015-16 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (EST) Notes
7-Nov Hillsdale 2:30 Exhibition
14-Nov West Virginia Tech 2:30
18-Nov Youngstown State 7:00
21-Nov Loyola Illinois 5:00
25-Nov San Jose State 11:30 Great Alaska Shootout
27-Nov San Diego/Loyola Chicago TBD Great Alaska Shootout
28-Nov TBD TBD Great Alaska Shootout
2-Dec Cleveland State 7:00
6-Dec at Green Bay 3:00
9-Dec at Detroit 7:30
12-Dec Oakland 7:00
19-Dec Bethune-Cookman 7:00
21-Dec North Carolina A&T 7:00
30-Dec Northern Kentucky 7:00
6-Jan at Ball State 7:00
9-Jan at Miami 3:30
12-Jan Northern Illinois 7:00
16-Jan Akron 7:00
19-Jan at Bowling Green 7:00
23-Jan at Northern Illinois TBA
26-Jan Ohio 7:00
30-Jan Buffalo 7:00
2-Feb Western Michigan 7:00
6-Feb at Kent State TBA
9-Feb at Buffalo 7:00
13-Feb Miami 7:00
16-Feb at Central Michigan 7:00
20-Feb at Eastern Michigan 12:00
23-Feb Ball State 7:00
27-Feb Central Michigan 7:00
1-Mar at Western Michigan 7:00
4-Mar Eastern Michigan 7:00

Two Experienced Starters Return to Lead in 2015-2016

While graduation hit the Rockets hard following the 2014-2015 season, Toledo returns two talented veteran starters in junior guard Jonathan Williams and senior center Nathan Boothe. Williams (#13 in our Top 25 MAC Basketball Players Countdown) is an athletic guard capable of playing multiple positions who averaged 10 points per game last season and shot over 36 percent from three point range. As the fourth leading scorer during the 2014-15 season, Williams will be called upon to elevate his scoring and provide leadership for a talented but inexperienced backcourt.

Nathan Boothe returns to anchor the Rockets down low and was a 2014-2015 All-MAC Honorable Mention performer. Boothe also averaged 10 points per game and nearly six rebounds, while displaying an admirable touch from three point range when given the opportunity. Boothe has been a hallmark at the center position for the Rockets during his time in Toledo and early in the upcoming season will exceed 1,000 career points and 500 career rebounds.

Can Last Seasons' Bench Players Make More of an Impact?

With three positions in the starting lineup open to competition, the Rockets will need valuable contributions from individuals that saw at times limited action off the bench last season. While sophomore guard Stuckey Mosley, junior guard Jordan Lauf and junior center Zach Garber saw action in all 33 of Toledo’s games in 2014-2015 the trio combined to averaged just under 10 points per game.

Early signs point to Mosley stepping in and filling the role as the starting point guard. Last season Mosley averaged just over 10 minutes per game off the bench and reached double figures in scoring on just one occasion. However, with an increased opportunity in his second season look for Mosley to not only prove to be a capable facilitator at the point position, but also to potentially be the third leading scoring this season behind Williams and Boothe.

Lauf more than capably filled his role as defensive sparkplug and Mr. Hustle off the bench last season, but it is to be determined if Lauf will be able to crack the starting lineup this year. Lauf is versatile enough to guard multiple positions on defense, but will need to contribute more on the offensive end and improve his three point shooting that has been inconsistent in his first two seasons with the Rockets. While capable of starting this season, Lauf may find himself serving as the sixth man off the bench to provide a boost of energy on both ends of the court.

Zach Garber will once again fill in as the backup center behind Nathan Boothe, this season. The 6-10 Garber has proven more than serviceable as a rebounder in previous seasons and displayed a high motor that should lead to increased minutes and opportunities for offensive production this season.

Plenty of Opportunity and Plenty of Youth!

Kowalczyk and his staff have brought in six scholarship freshmen for the 2015-2016 season and several of them will be called upon early and often to make large contributions. Early indications are 6-foot-4 guard Jaelan Sanford, 6-foot-9 forward Taylor Adway, 6-foot-1 guard Nick Rogers and 6-foot-8 forward Nate Navigato all could see meaningful minutes immediately for the Rockets.

Sanford, the Evansville, Indiana native is a combo guard who averaged over 20 points per game as a high school senior in being named first team all-state. Sanford has been described as possessing limitless shooting range and depending on lineup formations could be looked at to start immediately. Navigato, from Geneva, Illinois, is a stretch power forward with excellent three point range as well that could also find himself in the starting lineup as the season begins. Navigato ended his high school career as Geneva’s all-time leading scorer and leader in three point field goals made.

Adway, out of Hazel Crest, Illinois (the same high school as former Rocket Julius Brown) should also see immediate minutes at the power forward position and provide a strong presence as a rebounder and shot blocker. Adway averaged 10 rebounds and 5 blocked shots as a high school senior to go along with 17 points per game. The Indianapolis, Indiana native Rogers looks more than capable to serve as the backup point guard and also see impactful minutes to start the season. Rodgers averaged nearly 20 points per game and 5 assists as a high school senior at Traders Point Christian Academy. Rogers attended the Elev8 Institute in Delray Beach, FL, during 2014-2015 academic year.

Coach Kowalczyk may also lean on additional freshmen to make an impact as Chandler White, a 6-2 guard from Fort Wayne, and 6-11 center Luke Knapke from Minster, Ohio, also are in the mix to see minutes off the bench this season. With potentially four freshmen seeing significant minutes from the start of the season, do not be surprised to see Toledo place multiple individuals on the conference all freshmen team as the season concludes.

Keep an Eye on These Three Players

Boothe has been a starter and a contributor for the Rockets since the day he stepped on campus. As Boothe writes the final chapter on a very fine career, I would look for him to take the next step and become a dominate all conference big man this season. Boothe is an exceptional interior passer and will be called upon to help drive the Rockets offense not just as a scorer but as a facilitator as well. Look for Boothe to raise his offensive output this season and average over 15 points per game and be a constant threat to pull down 10 plus rebounds a night.

For the Rockets to be successful this season, Jonathan Williams will also need to step up and become an all-conference type performer. Williams has shown the ability to score both as a shooter and possessing a knack for getting to the basket, but for the first time will be asked to lead and serve as the key cog on the perimeter. Like Boothe, Williams will need to find a way to consistently average around 15 points per game, but do not be surprised to the junior pour in more than 20 a night on multiple occasions.

Sanford also is in an excellent position to step up and fill the scoring roles lost to graduation. Rocket fans should immediately be impressed with Sanford’s shooting range and his potential to knock down multiple three point shots a night. Look for Sanford to contribute right away for the Rockets and find himself on the MAC All Freshmen Team at seasons end.

What to Expect in 2015-2016

The Rockets were hit hard by graduation, but so too was much of the MAC and moreover the West division as well. Toledo does have the benefit of being able to lean on two experienced players in Williams and Boothe that both appear poised to enter the upper echelon of conference players. However, the success of this season will largely hinge on the ability of underclassmen like Mosley and multiple incoming freshmen to make an immediate impact.

If Mosely and a couple of the freshmen can relieve Boothe and Williams of a portion of the scoring burden, the Rockets should be very competitive in conference play. Central Michigan will be the prohibitive favorite this season to win the MAC Tournament, much as the Rockets were last year, but do not overlook this group from Toledo that brings a nice mix of experience and youthful talent to hardwood this season.