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Toledo Rockets vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles MAC basketball tournament preview

The Eagles and Rockets tie a bow on a most unorthodox season series.

Mike Talley scored 41 points over two games against Toledo this season.
Mike Talley scored 41 points over two games against Toledo this season.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

With just one side of the story, tonight's MAC Tournament quarterfinal matchup between Toledo and Eastern Michigan is an easy one to pick.

Consider Story A: Preseason conference title favorite Toledo rolls into Cleveland with one of the conference's best players in Julius Brown, having finished just a game outside of first place in the MAC. The Rockets simply need to get past eighth-seeded Eastern Michigan, an outfit that went only 8-10 in conference play, including an 84-60 Rockets romp when the teams met in Toledo in February. The Rockets should cruise to the semifinals.

How about Story B? Upstart Eastern Michigan seems to have carried momentum from its MAC Tournament semifinal run in 2014. The Eagles are on a tear, winning four straight, including an emotional overtime win over Miami and last night's triumph over a Bowling Green squad that spent all year in the title hunt. Most crucially, the Eagles wiped the floor with tonight's opponent Toledo only six days ago, piling on an 85-59 rout. Toledo's coach Tod Kowalczyk called it "as disappointing of a loss" as he had seen in his Rockets tenure, Toledo's third defeat in four games. The Eagles should cruise to the semifinals.

The reality is almost certainly somewhere in the middle. Despite the propensity to turn in a cold shooting night now and then, the Rockets (19-12, 11-7 MAC) are rightly regarded as having one of the conference's most explosive offenses. Toledo's 74 points per game in conference play were good for second in the league, just behind a Buffalo squad the Rockets edged 92-88 in their only meeting this year. When Brown, Justin Drummond, J.D. Weatherspoon and company catch fire, it's nearly impossible to keep pace with Toledo.

While Toledo's best might be better than that of any other MAC team, Eastern Michigan (21-12, 8-10 MAC) has already proven it can bring out the Rockets' worst. The Eagles' 2-3 zone defense frustrated Toledo in Friday's blowout, and the offensive stylings of Mike Talley, Karrington Ward and Raven Lee gave the home side more than enough balance to take advantage.

Like the rest of the season for the mercurial Rockets, the result of this battle may simply rely on whether Toledo is making its shots. The Midnight Blue and Gold sunk a sizzling 51.9 percent of its shots in its February win over Eastern, but just 32.2 percent in Friday's flop. Toledo has had nearly a week off to lick its wounds ahead of tonight's 6:30 tipoff, and it will need to shake off its recent struggles to earn a semifinal bid and begin to satisfy its lofty expectations.

But if the stiff Eagles defense stymies the Rockets once more, Toledo's much-anticipated season may collapse into one last "could have been," while Eastern Michigan's reputation as a dangerous tournament team grows.