AKRON, Ohio – The road to the Mid-American Conference title and prime mid-March positioning to win what’s almost certainly going to be the league’s lone NCAA tournament bid goes through Akron and the high-level program Zips coach Keith Dambrot has built.
On Saturday morning, Toledo ran Akron right off its own floor.
What it means for a crowded league race going forward remains to be seen, but the Zips are no longer unbeaten in league play and Toledo is no longer a talented team chasing big wins, especially on the road.
The Rockets left little doubt Saturday in a 75-61 win.
It was a made-for-TV, 11 a..m. start time because Akron is the MAC’s main attraction and Toledo started the season 12-0 before losing at Kansas, then again on the road in its conference opener at Western Michigan.
More TV games are coming Toledo’s way. The Rockets got 25 points from Julius "Juice" Brown, 20 points and 14 rebounds from Ohio State transfer J.D. Weatherspoon and made a statement.
"It’s certainly a very good win for our program," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "Nobody has more respect for Akron and Keith Dambrot than we do.
"They’re the king of the league. This is just one game. We’re going to keep plugging and getting better."
An athletic Toledo team that came in averaing a MAC-best 84 points per game played a physical brand, too. The Rockets held a 42-28 rebounding edge and had 16 offensive rebounds, 11 in the first half. Toledo outscored Akron in the paint, 42-26, and led by as many as 18 just past the midway point of the second half.
"They came in here and beat us at our own game," Akron forward Demetrius Treadwell said.
Said Dambrot: "What they did is they took the first punch to the bully and we didn’t punch back. They just played better than us. The tone was set early. We didn’t rebound the ball.
A Brown 3-pointer, his fourth, made it 56-41 with 11:35 left. He scored in the first half, too, as Toledo built leads of seven and nine and kept Akron at arm’s length, leading 37-28 at half. Weatherspoon’s best college game was punctuated not just by his career high in rebounds but a pair of late-game dunks that sent many Akron fans home early.
Toledo is 15-2, 3-1 and now plays its next two at home with momentum. Akron slips to 11-5, 3-1 and plays its next two on the road.
Akron had won 18 straight against the MAC-West and 43 of its last 46 at home.
Toledo started at the bottom. Really. The Rockets were 15-13 last year, when they were banned from the postseason as the final part of the NCAA’s punishment for not meeting APR standards. It was Toledo’s second straight winning season after going 4-28 in both 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Earlier this season, Kowalczyk said "bad players, bad character…you name it, we had it all."
On Saturday, he said the additions of Justin Drummond and Weatherspoon "can’t be measured." He said Drummond is the best leader he’s ever been around, even with an off game here, and that Weatherspoon gives Toledo an athletic presence in the paint it simply hasn’t had before.
"We’re going to see (Akron) again in the MAC tournament," Weatherspoon said. "This is just one battle. Our main focus was rebounding, and we did it.
Now, Toledo has a team that can legitimately think it’s good enough to make the NCAA tournament.
"The championship doesn’t go through Akron or this gym or our gym — it goes through Cleveland (site of the MAC tournament," Kowalczyk said. "We’re just trying to get better from now until then.
"This was just one, but it was a big one. Akron’s been a part of these (TV) games, Kent State has, Ohio has. Toledo has not been a part of them. We have earned the right to play in big basketball games."