Rockets bounce back, ready for MAC Tourney

After the Rockets saw their window of opportunity slammed shut before they could possibly grab a piece of the Mid-American Conference West Division championship, a little bit of the life came out of the team.

Toledo went into the final week of the season still in the mix for the title, but after Eastern Michigan slipped by Western Michigan in the final seconds on Feb. 29, that eliminated the Rockets while Toledo’s game at Northern Illinois was still in progress. Toledo then floundered against the Huskies, falling 65-61.

If the Rockets were looking to send a message that they deserved a better ending to this season of revival, they found a way to do it in the following game.

The Rockets hosted the MAC’s West Division outright champion, Eastern Michigan, on the final day of the regular season, and administered a 76-51 beating to the Eagles. Only MAC overall champion Akron handed Eastern Michigan a worse setback in the conference season.

“There was disappointment after we lost, but we just had to bounce back and get our minds right,” Toledo guard Rian Pearson said after he scored 27 points and added 11 rebounds in the rout of Eastern Michigan.

The win locked up the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament for the Rockets, who will host a first-round game against Miami on Monday.

“We needed something to give us a little push toward the playoffs,” Pearson said. “We needed to come out and play with confidence.”

It is easy to forget just how far the Rockets have come since last season and how far they have moved away from the mess the program was in when previous head coach Gene Cross was fired. Toledo is coming off back-to-back 4-28 seasons.

Toledo (16-15, 7-9 MAC) finished the regular season in sole possession of second place in the MAC’s West Division.

NOTES, QUOTES

Pearson, Dennis come through against Eagles

–Sophomore G Rian Pearson had a double-double with 27 points and 11 rebounds in Toledo’s impressive 76-51 win over MAC West Division champion Eastern Michigan in the final game of the regular season. Pearson had his 10th games with 20 or more points, his eighth double-double.

–Junior G Curtis Dennis made his first start of the season in the final regular-season game and helped the Rockets to a 76-51 rout of MAC West Division champion Eastern Michigan. Dennis had 21 points and seven rebounds — both career highs.

–The Rockets finished the 2011-12 regular season 16-15. That was a 12-win improvement over last season, when the Rockets went 4-28.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 — That’s how many guards the Rockets started in their regular-season finale against Eastern Michigan. For the first time all season, Toledo went with a lineup of PG Julius Brown, G Rian Pearson, G Dominique Buckley, G Curtis Dennis and F Matt Smith. The combination produced a 76-51 rout of the MAC West champion Eagles.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’re glad that we have a game at home. Even though we had a setback against Northern Illinois, I still feel like we’ve got it going.” — Toledo G Rian Pearson, on his team hosting a first-round game in the conference tournament.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–vs. Miami (Ohio), MAC tournament first round, March 5

KEY MATCHUPS: The Rockets handled the RedHawks on the road in Oxford the only time these two met during the conference season, and the rematch in the MAC tournament comes on Toledo’s home floor. Miami senior F Julian Mavunga is possibly the best player in the league, but he is hidden on one of the weaker teams in the MAC. Toledo will need to go at Mavunga in tandem, especially if the Rockets stick with the four-guard approach they used in the season finale. Mavunga is a long 6-foot-8 and is equally comfortable inside or out around the 3-point arc. Keep him in modest numbers, and the Rockets should move on to the second round in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

FUTURES MARKET: When the Rockets started a lineup of four guards and F Matt Smith in their season finale against Eastern Michigan, it was a move that told two stories. First, Toledo is loaded with talented, capable guards. Second, the Rockets have very little inside talent they can rely on. C Richard Wonnell is a workhorse and a blue-collar guy, but he’s not a scorer. C DeLino Dear has fallen out of the good graces of coach Tod Kowalczyk, but Dear is not much of a scorer when he’s not in the doghouse. The key for the Rockets in the future will be how they address this shortcoming. C Nathan Boothe is a 6-foot-9 recruit coming in next fall, but it’s not realistic to expect him to provide a burst of offense around the basket. The long-term solution to this problem has yet to be recruited.

PLAYER NOTES

–PG Julius Brown was the MAC’s freshman of the month for February after he averaged 14.4 points, 4.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game and shot 40.6 percent from 3-point range during the month.

–Junior G Dominique Buckley had 11 points and five assists in the 76-51 win over Eastern Michigan that ended the regular season.