Bold move has paid off for Toledo, Pearson

Dec 30, 2013; Lawrence, KS, USA; Toledo Rockets guard Rian Pearson (5) drives to the basket against Kansas Jayhawks guard Naadir Tharpe (10) in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse.

John Rieger/John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND – Sometimes, big-shot high school star goes off to college with big dreams and big visions, and it just doesn’t click. Said big shot packs his bags, takes some time to reflect and needs a new start.

It was kind of like that with Rian Pearson. Except it wasn’t.

"It didn’t click with Rian right away," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said, "and that’s why he left to come here."

After eight seasons as head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Kowalczyk left to take over what was going to be a huge rebuilding project at Toledo in 2010. Pearson had been a key sub as a freshman for UWGB, and he thought enough of Kowalczyk to transfer and come along.

"I knew nothing about Toledo," Pearson said.

He’s from Raytown, Mo. He knew Toledo faced a long road back to any kind of basketball relevance. He signed up anyway.


"I just wanted a fresh start," he said. "I believed in Coach K."

Now he’s 23, ancient by today’s college basketball standards. The rebuild is in the past, and the future is right now. Like, in these next two days.

Toledo shared the Mid-American Conference title with Western Michigan and earned a double bye in the conference tournament. Toledo, now an experienced team with Pearson and Juice Brown and Justin Drummond as its headliners, has won 26 games already and needs two more for an automatic bid.

For Pearson, it’s clicking again. It’s all worked the way he believed it would

"I’m humble, I’m grateful and I just appreciate the opportunity to play with these guys, play for these coaches and the great year we’re having," Pearson said. "But I’m hungry. I just want to get to the tournament so bad."

Toledo went 4-28 in 2011, when Pearson sat out his mandatory transfer year. Two winning seasons followed, but last year’s Rockets were banned from the postseason as the final part of NCAA punishment for not meeting APR standards. This year, Pearson’s individual numbers are down but the Rockets are 26-5 heading into Friday night’s MAC semifinal vs. Eastern Michigan.

"We started at the bottom," Pearson said. "The culture is totally different. People love us and support us. We have great players and a great team — that’s important. We play as a team. We’ve earned everything we have and we don’t want to be done yet."

Pearson is taking fewer shots this year, and his scoring average is at 14.3 after he averaged almost 18 points per game last year. The team is better. Pearson, in his own words, has "grown up. I’m trying to lead. I care about winning" above all else.

"He’s made tremendous strides socially, academically and as an all-around player," Kowalczyk said. "I’m unbelievably proud of his development and maturity."

Pearson is also averaging five rebounds and just under two assists and two steals per game. Kowalczyk trusts him in big moments, and there haven’t been any bigger than this.

"This is it, and I’m just trying to embrace it," Pearson said. "I’m leaving it all on the court. I’m trying to get to the NCAA tournament."