Toledo stacking up wins, unfazed by 'other stuff'
FEB 12, 2014 11:05p ET
Toledo has a pretty good darn good basketball team, one that looks good enough to overcome a bunch of them.
One that looks like it's capable of winning bigger games and bigger prizes from here.
The Rockets haven't yet cracked the top 25 and haven't made many headlines outside of their own city, but they're stacking up wins and style points. Win No. 21 in 24 tries came Wednesday night, 82-76 over Ohio, as Rian Pearson scored 29 points and Juice Brown scored 17 in what for Toledo was both a revenge game and a statement game.
A year off NCAA-mandated postseason suspension for not meeting academic standards and just four years removed from being one of the worst teams in the country, the Rockets aren't yet anything but the Mid-American Conference's best team. Their plan is to keep collecting wins and position what's currently a pretty well-kept secret for a real launch in March.
"We talk about (outside stuff and rankings) very little," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "We're in a position where every game is a huge game. Every game is a championship game. If we need to be an at-large team next month, that's just the way it has to be."
The Rockets got no votes in this week's top 25 coaches poll. The week before, they got one. Their RPI entering Wednesday night's game was 33, good enough for discussion if the NCAA tournament committee was meeting now. The most prominent banner in Toledo's Savage Arena celebrates the 2011 WNIT championship won by Toledo's women's team, and though that's not a discussion point in the locker room, it's impossible to ignore.
"We can't relax," Pearson said. "We're still proving ourselves."
The win over Ohio coupled with Akron's loss puts Toledo alone atop the MAC and in position to win the program's first league title since 2007. The top two finishers get byes to the semifinals in the season-ending conference tournament, where Toledo will try to win its way to its first NCAA tournament since 1980.
The Rockets can score. They lead the MAC at 83 points per game and got 82 Wednesday night without their leading scorer, Justin Drummond, who was suspended for the game after being arrested on DUI charges last weekend. Four starters scored in double figures against Ohio and the one who didn't, Ohio State transfer J.D. Weatherspoon, is averaging 11.7 and gives the Rockets an element of athleticism that previous teams didn't have.
With a guard-heavy and experience-laden lineup, these guys get out and go.
"Without question, that's a team that can win the league," Ohio coach Jim Christian said. "Just the way they score and the sheer depth of their scoring, it's impressive. Every guy can come in and get buckets, and not many (MAC) teams have that."
It got a little hairy in the second half Wednesday night as a six-point halftime lead became a six-point deficit with 11:33 left, but no one in the Toledo locker room expected it to be easy. These teams played a 95-90 overtime game won by Ohio just 11 days earlier, but the difference in this one was Toledo in general and Pearson in particular remained the aggressors. Toledo got the big rebounds, Pearson scored inside and out and there were too many guys making plays for anyone to lament Drummond's absence.
"We rallied around the adversity a little bit," Kowalczyk said. "We were down a really good player, and everybody needed to step up."
Kowalcyzk had to start freshman guard Jonathan Williams because Drummond was out, and Williams delivered 12 points. A sign of a good team is that Kowalczyk said he "knew" what he'd get from Pearson and Brown and Toledo's most experienced players. Pearson scored seven straight during the decisive run; momentum really shifted after Weatherspoon wrestled down an offensive rebound and kicked it to Pearson, who knocked down a 15-foot jumper and got fouled with 8:25 to go.
He scored 13 more from there.
"We have a lot of great players," Pearson said. "Not having one guy...that isn't going to stop our show."
Toledo has lost at Kansas (93-83 on Dec. 28), at Ohio and has just one clunker, at Western Michigan in the MAC opener. Remaining on the schedule are four road games, two matchups with deliberate and defensive-minded Eastern Michigan and a revenge game with Western Michigan.
Wins will keep Toledo's RPI in at-lare discussion range. Maybe some poll votes will come. Maybe some headlines will, too.
"We don't talk much about that stuff," Brown said. "We're just trying to win every game, one at a time. That's all we want to do."
Said Pearson: "We know we're good. And we're hungry. We want that NCAA tournament bid, and we're going to keep chasing it."