Mid-American Conference basketball roundup

Mid-American Conference basketball roundup

Published Jan. 10, 2012 1:57 p.m. ET


A six-day break turned out to be the ideal recipe to help Akron get healthy and work out some kinks before the start of Mid-American Conference play. The Zips won their second straight game with a 65-60 victory at Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 7 in the conference opener.

The Zips won their third straight against the RedHawks, building momentum for a Wednesday contest at Bowling Green that ends a three-game road trip. After struggling due to lineup changes and injuries early in the season, the Zips are looking like a team capable of winning another league championship.

Akron sophomore guard Alex Abreu is still working back into shape after knee surgery, but the Zips need him on the floor due to a shortage of quality guards. Abreu played 33 minutes against Miami, scoring six points and handing out six assists in the victory. He made two free throws with 33 seconds left to extend Akron's lead to four points.

Coach Keith Dambrot has realized the importance of giving Abreu some rest while letting some other players adjust to playing at the point. Quincy Diggs scored 14 points against Miami and spelled Abreu at point, while Nick Harney was a key reserve in the win.

"I'm kind of an instinctive type of coach. I thought Alex was a little bit tired, so I played Quincy at the point," Dambrot said, "and I thought we were struggling to score. I thought Harney was a good offensive threat, so I went with Harney."


Cvetinovic provides points and boards

--Senior forward Nikola Cvetinovic ranked second on the team in scoring behind Zeke Marshall, averaging 10.1 points per game through Jan. 8. The 6-foot-8 Cvetinovic has started to add to his rebounding totals of late, bringing his season average to a team-leading 6.2 boards per game. Cvetinovic was third on the team in minutes played, averaging 26.0 minutes per game.

--Junior center Zeke Marshall led the Zips in scoring at 10.6 points per game through Jan. 8, but his rebounding average was somewhat troubling. The 7-footer was third on the team in that category, pulling down 5.1 boards per game.

BY THE NUMBERS: 46 -- Zeke Marshall had 46 of Akron's 69 total blocks through Jan. 8. Marshall had nearly as many blocks as Akron's opponents.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "That was a big-time win. We came into this game only being 2-5 down here." -- Akron coach Keith Dambrot, on winning Jan. 7 at Miami (Ohio).



--at Bowling Green, Jan. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: The Zips can't key on one Bowling Green player to stop or they risk a long night. The Falcons have several players capable of coming up big, but A'uston Calhoun is a tough player to stop due to his scoring and rebounding ability. The Zips have a size advantage in the frontcourt that they will try to exploit.

--vs. Ohio, Jan. 14

KEY MATCHUPS: The Bobcats won't be intimidated playing at Akron. Ohio lost by five points at Louisville and defeated Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Akron's game plan will have a heavy dose of defensive tactics attempting to stop Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper from lighting up the scoreboard. The 5-foot-11 Cooper can take over the game on both ends of the floor.

FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore guard Brian Walsh is helping the Zips at a thin position. Walsh started in Akron's Mid-American Conference opener at Miami (Ohio), scoring 13 points in 28 minutes. Walsh helped the stagnant offense with his deadeye shooting, connecting on three of his four 3-pointers. The Zips need a consistent threat from outside to force teams from dropping an extra defender down due to Akron's interior strength. Walsh has started in eight of Akron's first 15 games, averaging 8.4 points per game.


--Sophomore C Zeke Marshall is high on the list of NBA scouts due to his size, length and shot-blocking ability. The 7-footer had started all 15 games through Jan. 8, and he was staying out of foul trouble compared to his first two years. Marshall led the Zips in scoring, averaging 10.6 points, and he was pulling down 5.1 rebounds per game.

--Junior G Quincy Diggs had little experience playing point guard until this year, but Diggs is helping the Zips during a tough transition until sophomore Alex Abreu nurses back to health from in-season surgery. Through Jan. 8, Diggs was second on the team with a scoring average of 9.5 points and was shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point territory.


After a Jan. 7 win over Ohio, which came into the game with 12 victories, Bowling Green faces two more top-level Mid-American Conference teams this week -- Akron on Jan. 11 and Kent State on Jan. 14.

To continue its success, Bowling Green must emulate what it accomplished in the 67-57 win over the Bobcats -- good defense, strong contributions from the veterans, and toughness under pressure.

And it all has started with junior point guard Jordon Crawford, who at 5-foot-6 is the fourth-shortest player in Division I.

Crawford likes to play fast, and the Falcons are better when he does. He can get out of control on occasion, but when playing with poise, he makes the Falcons a much better team.

"Jordon Crawford really gets them into what they're doing. ... His speed really stood out," Ohio coach John Groce said after the game in which Crawford scored a game-high 16 points and added five assists, four rebounds and two steals.

Bowling Green is in the middle of the pack in the MAC in defense, allowing 66.2 points per game through Jan. 7. Coach Louis Orr wants the Falcons to play man-to-man as much as possible.

However, the 2-3 zone is a defense Orr is very familiar with, dating back to his playing days at Syracuse. Orr broke it out for the Ohio game, and it helped hold the Bobcats to 20 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Ohio came into the game making 35.2 percent of its 3-pointers.

With juniors and seniors combining to fill six of the top nine spots in the rotation, experience is a big plus for the Falcons. It showed in the 11-1 run to finish the Ohio game, as upperclassmen scored all 11 points.

That veteran presence makes a huge difference when things get close.

"I felt we persevered. Things were getting tough, and we didn't back off or fall on our heels," Crawford said after the Ohio win. "We came together as a team, and we knew that basketball is a game of runs. We knew they were going to get a run. When they got their run, we just had to keep our composure, and we had to step up and close the game out."


Thomas keeps rolling after hitting 1,000-point milestone

--After being recognized before the Ohio game on Jan. 7 for passing the 1,000 point-mark, senior Scott Thomas went out and posted his second double-double this season and 10th of his career with 10 points and 10 rebounds in Bowling Green's 67-57 win. All 10 points and eight of the rebounds came in the second half.

--Junior Jordon Crawford had scored in double figures in five of his last six games through Jan. 7. He did it once in his first eight games. He was averaging 10.9 ppg.

--Scoring 70 points is usually a key to success. Not so for Bowling Green this season, as the Falcons were 0-3 through Jan. 7 when scoring between 70 and 79 points. A little slower pace is to the Falcons' liking, as they were 5-1 when scoring between 60 and 69 points. The Falcons were 0-3 when they scored fewer than 60 points and 2-0 when they went over 80 points.

BY THE NUMBER: 26 -- Torian Oglesby's streak of 26 made field goals, an NCAA Division I record, ended when he missed a tip-in with 11:12 remaining in the first half against Ohio on Jan. 7. He did recover and made two big baskets and a free throw in Bowling Green's 11-1 run to end the game and clinch the win.

"I heard the crowd go 'ooooh,' and it got in my head for a second. But I had to move forward and continue to play," Oglesby said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He always brings a lot of energy. He's just like me, only shorter, way shorter." -- Senior F Torian Oglesby, who is 6-foot-7, about Jordon Crawford, who is 5-6.



--vs. Akron, Jan. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: Bowling Green's inside players -- A'uston Calhoun, Cam Black and Torian Oglesby -- are going to have their work cut out for them against Akron's 7-foot junior Zeke Marshall, who led the Mid-American Conference with 46 blocked shots through Jan. 8.

Marshall has improved a lot in his first two seasons at Akron, especially with his shooting and staying out of foul trouble. He's still learning how to play down low, and he needs to be a more consistent rebounder. He had no rebounds in 31 minutes against Miami on Jan. 7 and was averaging 5.1 rebounds per game.

--at Kent State, Jan. 14

KEY MATCHUPS: It doesn't get any easier for Bowling Green's post players, as the Falcons face Kent State's Justin Greene, 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, who is the reigning conference player of the year. Greene fouled out of Kent State's 66-65 loss to Buffalo, scoring 16 points in just 20 minutes. Through Jan. 8, he was averaging 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but is a force to be concerned with inside.

FUTURES MARKET: Freshman point guard Jehvon Clarke has continued to develop, and he competes when he comes into the game to give starter Jordon Crawford a break. He's becoming a better player simply by working against the high-energy Crawford every day in practice.


--Senior F Torian Oglesby (20 points, 13 rebounds) and junior G Jordon Crawford (16 points, 11 assists) had double-doubles against Texas-San Antonio on Jan. 1. It was the first time two Falcons had double-doubles in the same game since Feb. 3, 2007.

--Senior F Scott Thomas, through Jan. 7, needed two points to move into 35th on Bowling Green's all-time scoring list. He had 1,035 points.

--Oglesby was shooting 87.5 percent from the field for the season through Jan. 8, having made 35 of 40 shots.


Coach Rob Senderoff was ready to move on quickly after the Golden Flashes' 66-65 loss to Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference opener Jan. 7.

"I don't feel good, not at all," he told the Akron Beacon Journal.

The loss wasn't the best way for Kent State to begin the defense of its Mid-American Conference regular-season title. The Golden Flashes have been a team in transition throughout the early going. Senderoff is in his first season as head coach after being on the bench for several seasons as an assistant.

Kent State has had to deal with other factors. Point guard Michael Porrini has been battling a foot injury for the last month, and center Justin Manns has already been suspended twice by Senderoff.

The Golden Flashes dropped two of three at a tournament in Utah last month. Victories over Arkansas State and Shawnee State followed, but the momentum stopped when Kent State lost at Buffalo for the fifth straight time.

"We've had some guys playing, others not playing. Once we get everybody back as a core group and get rolling, it's going to be tough to stop us," forward Justin Greene told the Beacon Journal.

Kent State's next two conference games are at home. The Golden Flashes host Miami on Jan. 11 and Bowling Green on Jan. 14.

"Every conference game is a challenge," Senderoff said. "You know that coming into every season. It's important to defend home court especially since it's so tough to win on the road in this league."


Offense vanishes down stretch at Buffalo

--Kent State went cold at the worst possible time in the 66-65 loss to Buffalo. Randal Holt's basket gave the Golden Flashes a 62-60 lead with 3:52 remaining in the game. Kent State went scoreless for the next 3:47, and any chance for victory was gone. A missed layup and a missed free throw on the front end of a one-and-one were especially costly. The Golden Flashes didn't score again until Michael Porrini's desperation 3-pointer with five seconds remaining. Kent State's offense completely shut down after forward Justin Greene fouled out with 4:51 remaining. Greene had 16 points and five rebounds, but played only 20 minutes.

--Poor shooting plagued Kent State against Buffalo. The Golden Flashes shot 43 percent from the field. Guards Michael Porrini (four of 11), Carlton Guyton (three of 10) and Randal Holt (four of 11) combined to make 11 of 32 shots from the field. That lack of production, along with Justin Greene's foul trouble, helped lead to the loss.

--Senior guard Michael Porrini might have more than just a foot injury to deal with. He appeared to sustain a wrist injury while trying to block a dunk attempt by Buffalo's Titus Robinson at the buzzer. Porrini has already missed a game and been limited in several others by his foot. He played 29 minutes, scoring 13 points with six rebounds, three assists and three steals against Buffalo.

BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- The Golden Flashes took care of the basketball in their loss to Buffalo, committing a season-low seven turnovers. Point guard Michael Porrini had one turnover in 29 minutes. Kent State had 14 assists in the game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He is the best player on our team in a lot of ways, so when he only plays 20 minutes, it certainly hurts." -- Kent State coach Rob Senderoff, on Justin Greene, who was plagued by foul trouble in the loss to Buffalo.



--vs. Miami (Ohio), Jan. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: Kent State and Miami lost their conference openers, so there will be a sense of urgency on both sides. Falling to 0-2 will put the loser in a difficult spot. Kent State needs to take advantage of the fact that Miami is shorthanded because of injuries and disciplinary issues. The matchup between Justin Greene and Miami star Julian Mavunga is always interesting. The two are leading candidates for the Conference Player of the Year, which Greene won last season.

--vs. Bowling Green, Jan. 14

KEY MATCHUPS: Jordon Crawford is Bowling Green's top scorer, but he isn't the Falcons' only threat. Bowling Green relies on balanced scoring and strong defense. Kent State will have to be patient when running its offense.

FUTURES MARKET: Getting to the foul line and then converting once they get there is usually one of Kent State's strengths. That wasn't the case against Buffalo. The Golden Flashes shot only 14 free throws, making eight. It didn't help that Justin Greene played only 20 minutes and fouled out with 4:51 remaining. That took away Kent State's inside game, and the guards didn't get into the lane once Greene departed. Now that conference play has begun, the Golden Flashes won't win many games when they aren't getting to the line.


--Senior F Justin Greene had two steals against Buffalo. He became the first player in school history to record over 1,000 points (1,265 through Jan. 7), 100 blocks (107) and 100 steals (101) in his career.

--Junior F Chris Evans was limited to nine minutes because of foul trouble against Buffalo. He missed all three shot attempts and had four fouls.

--Freshman G Devareaux Manley played only three minutes against Buffalo and was scoreless.


The RedHawks need something good to happen, but it doesn't look as if it will occur anytime soon.

The losses and bad news keep piling up for Miami, which dropped its Mid-American Conference opener to Akron by a 65-60 score. Not only did the loss drop Miami to 4-9 overall, but it also came at Millett Hall, where the RedHawks usually win conference games.

Miami's problems go beyond wins and losses. The RedHawks will play without guard Allen Roberts and forward Bill Edwards the rest of the season. Roberts, who hasn't appeared in a game, had knee surgery, while Edwards, who struggled after transferring from Penn State, had a wrist operation.

The upcoming schedule doesn't offer any relief. Miami travels to defending regular-season champion Kent State on Jan. 11. The Golden Flashes will be in a nasty mood after dropping their conference opener at Buffalo.

Miami's loss to Akron followed a familiar pattern, which also doesn't bode well as the RedHawks dive into MAC play. Miami again had problems in the second half. A 58-all tie with 1:40 remaining turned into a five-point loss and left the RedHawks looking for answers.

"You just have to pull up your socks and pull together as a team," senior forward Julian Mavunga said in the Oxford (Ohio) Times. "We didn't do that. That's been our Achilles' heel. We just can't finish games."

Letting games get away in the second half is nothing new for the RedHawks, but it's something that needs to be corrected soon. The losses to Wright State and Evansville featured a similar ending.

"We felt like we played a pretty good game, and in the second half, we basically just crumbled," Mavunga said in the Times. "I don't think we have the same energy we do in the second half that we do in the first half."


Turnovers are proving costly

--Coach Charlie Coles continues to be frustrated by the RedHawks' inability to take care of the basketball. Miami had 14 turnovers and only six assists against Akron. The RedHawks had 197 turnovers to just 135 assists in the first 13 games. While Julian Mavunga is Miami's best player, he has had major problems in this department with 51 turnovers and 21 assists. Guards Quinten Rollins (36 assists to 31 turnovers) and Jon Harris (20 to 13) were the only regulars with positive numbers.

--Freshman G Brian Sullivan has become a legitimate scoring threat. He scored 14 points against Akron and averaged 8.7 points through 13 games. Sullivan scored a career-high 24 points against Vanderbilt and hit eight of 10 3-pointers.

"When he's open, he's got a great chance at making the shot," coach Charlie Coles said in the Oxford (Ohio) Times. "It's up to us to really put our heads together to get him open. If we can do that, maybe we'll get somebody else more open."

--Miami needs more production from the center position, where Drew McGhee and Vince Legarza have split playing time. McGhee was averaging 3.8 points and 1.4 rebounds through 13 games (nine starts). Legarza was averaging 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds in eight games (two starts).

BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Forward Julian Mavunga recorded his ninth double-double of the season against Akron, scoring 23 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. The senior was averaging 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game through Jan. 8. Mavunga was doing it with little rest, as he was averaging 38.7 minutes a game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Boy, my bad. I think I cost us offensively late in the game. We're not the kind of team that can go one-on-one." -- Miami coach Charlie Coles, to the Oxford (Ohio) Times, on his strategy in the closing minutes of the Akron loss.



--at Kent State, Jan. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: Miami will get the Golden Flashes' best shot in Kent State's first league game at home. The RedHawks' backcourt will likely see heavy defensive pressure. Julian Mavunga and Justin Greene will match up in a battle between the two leading contenders for the MAC's Player of the Year award.

--vs. Buffalo, Jan. 14

KEY MATCHUPS: The Bulls are a tough match for any team. Javon McCrea and Mitchell Watt are a dangerous duo in the lane, and they help set up several good outside shooters.

FUTURES MARKET: Miami's lack of depth is a major issue as the team moves forward. Only six players currently seeing action were scoring more than 5.5 points a game through Jan. 8. Forward Julian Mavunga (19.7) was the only one scoring in double figures. Freshman guard Brian Sullivan was next with an 8.7 average. Josh Sewell (8.4), Jon Harris (7.6) and Quinten Rollins (5.5) followed. The RedHawks don't have the talent or bodies to be a force in the Mid-American Conference race.


--Junior G Allen Roberts will miss the rest of the season because of a injury to his right knee. He had surgery last month and hasn't appeared in a game. Roberts averaged 7.9 points a game last season.

--Sophomore F Bill Edwards' widely hyped first season with the program is over. He will have surgery on the left wrist that has been bothering him most of the season. The Penn State transfer averaged 6.7 points in seven games. Edwards was slated to be one Miami's top offensive threats, but he lost playing time before the injury.


The new year hasn't been kind to the Bobcats.

In the first week of 2012, Ohio saw its nine-game winning streak snapped and followed up by dropping its Mid-American Conference opener at Bowling Green. Ohio (12-3, 0-1 MAC) lost back-to-back games for the first time all season.

Even more troubling for the Bobcats was the nature of the losses. Both were close games, but both contests were chalk full of misses shots, missed chances and signs Ohio isn't continuing to develop defensively.

The Bobcats were a combined 7-for-46 from 3-point range during the two games, which showed the team was settling for jumpers.

Defensively, Ohio had allowed opponents to shoot above 50 percent in three of its last four games and had been out rebounded in three of the last four games.

Add it all up, and coach John Groce said his team wasn't playing tough enough.

"I'm just not buying it," he said. "I saw how we played at Marshall, at Louisville, at Northern Iowa. I know what we're capable of. So yeah, I'm not buying that we're playing with as much toughness as we've shown earlier in the season."

The Bobcats better find it quickly. Buffalo (9-4, 1-0 MAC) is the MAC's highest-scoring team, and the Bulls visit Athens on Jan. 11. Then Ohio travels to Akron on Jan. 18; the Zips are always acknowledged as one of the conference's more physically and mentally tough teams.

The Bobcats have played hard but not tough enough over the last couple of weeks, Groce said. Ohio was forcing turnovers -- 52 in the last two games -- but hadn't affected the opponent's shooting percentage. Ohio also had yielded too many offensive rebounds, and it wasn't working the half-court offense for good looks on a consistent basis.

"We have to get that toughness back. That's on me," Groce said. "Until we do, we're going to have more of this."


Forcing offense isn't helping Cooper

--Junior PG D.J. Cooper excels when he's allowed to pick his spots to score and set up teammates. But when asked to create too much on his own, Cooper and the Bobcats struggle.

Cooper took 17 shots in Ohio's 67-57 loss at Bowling Green on Jan. 7. The attempts matched a season-high for Cooper; Cooper had taken 17 shots in three games this season, and the Bobcats had lost each time (at Louisville, vs. Robert Morris and at Bowling Green).

Cooper was shooting just 36.3 percent from the field this season through Jan. 7, and only 27.2 percent from 3-point range. Both marks are down from Cooper's career averages and indicate the junior's willingness to try to create offense when the rest of the Bobcats bog down.

But too much Cooper leaves Ohio one-dimensional and easier to defend. Continued development from the rest of Ohio's cast would take pressure off Cooper to score and in turn allow Cooper to do what he does best -- create for others.

--Junior guard Walter Offutt was struggling to find his shot. In his last four games through Jan. 7, Offutt was shooting just 32.7 percent from the field and only 20.0 percent from 3-point range.

Offutt's struggles had been more pronounced from behind the arc. He'd missed 10 straight from 3-point range, and he had played five straight halves without making a 3-pointer.

--Sophomore guard Nick Kellogg entered MAC play hitting at a 49 percent clip from 3-point range, ninth in the nation. But in the conference play opener at Bowling Green, Kellogg struggled and hit just one of six from long range.

Kellogg is starting to see more and more attention from opposing defenses, and he will find his looks tougher and tougher to come by until Ohio can develop another consistent outside threat.

BY THE NUMBERS: 15.2 percent -- In losses to Robert Morris (Jan. 2) and at Bowling Green (Jan. 7), the Bobcats shot a combined seven of 46 (15.2 percent) from 3-point range. Both teams elected to play primarily zone defense, and Ohio couldn't shoot well enough to force either team out of it.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Until we get this figured out, we better be prepared to be disappointed a lot." -- Ohio coach John Groce, after the Bobcats dropped a second straight game, falling in the MAC opener at Bowling Green on Jan. 7.



--vs. Buffalo, Jan. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: The two teams split their series last year, but the Bobcats couldn't find a way to slow down PF Javon McCrae. McCrae, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound force in the paint, averaged 18 points and seven rebounds in the two games. Ohio has some length and athleticism in the paint but lacks a true wide-body to battle stronger post threats.

--at Akron, Jan. 18

KEY MATCHUPS: Ohio swept the Zips in 2011, winning both meetings as PG D.J. Cooper feasted on the Akron backcourt. Cooper averaged 19.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 12.0 assists in the two games against Akron, and he can expect plenty of changes in how the Zips approach him this time around.

FUTURES MARKET: Freshman forward TyQuane Goard isn't playing as much as he'd like, but he does have a set role in the Bobcats' 10-man rotation. A 6-foot-7 athlete with a large wingspan, Goard's role currently is to act as the lead defender when Ohio goes with full-court pressure.

Specializing in pressure on the inbounds pass, Goard has been effective in that limited capacity. Goard has potential to be the mid-sized, athletic forward that coach John Groce prefers, but for now, he'll have to settle for six to eight minutes a night as mainly a defensive specialist.

"I think he's done a terrific job and bought into what we've asked him to do," Groce said. "He wants to play more -- everyone wants to play more -- but we've been happy with what he's brought so far."


--Junior PF Reggie Keely has been slowed recently with some minor back spasms. Keely hasn't missed any game time as yet, but he has been limited in practice over the past week because of the spasms.

--Freshman PG Stevie Taylor had a rough MAC debut at Bowling Green. Taylor had three points, a steal and a rebound in 12 minutes during the Jan. 7 loss, but he also had three turnovers and was ineffective in guiding the Ohio offense against the Falcons' 2-3 zone.

--Senior C Kenny Belton continues to be a work in progress. A hip injury sidelined Belton in practice in early January, and he didn't make the trip to Bowling Green on Jan. 7. Belton, at this point, remains a long shot to be a meaningful contributor on a regular basis this season.


The Rockets' rise back to relevance has not come without controversy.

On the eve of the Mid-American Conference opener, things were not all rosy in Toledo, and there were concerns that the team would head into league play with some serious internal issues.

In a home contest against completely overpowered Indiana-Northwest, Toledo buried its guests 107-43. But the celebrating over that offensive explosion was tempered considerably by the fact the Rockets also used the occasion to hang out a little of their dirty laundry.

For reasons he did not divulge, Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk benched sophomore center/forward DeLino Dear. It was not technically a suspension, but it was obvious to all that Dear was deep in the doghouse when the Rockets cleared the bench early and he was the last man left sitting there for the duration of the game.

The 6-foot-9, 205-pounder had played in all 13 Toledo games this season prior to his night in the Kowalczyk penalty box. He had started three times. Last season, when the roster was considerably thinner, Dear played in all 32 Toledo games, starting 31 of them.

While not elaborating on just what his specific beef was with Dear, Kowalczyk indicated that he sensed a need for an attitude adjustment from his young big man.

"I'm sending a strong message," Kowalczyk said. "He needs to understand what it means to be a Rocket, and right now he doesn't understand it."

The inactive status of Dear, coupled with the gross mismatch of talent, allowed Kowalczyk to use the Indiana-Northwest game to give backup center Richard Wonnell and forward Matt Smith considerable playing time, and both of them took advantage of the opportunity.

Wonnell scored eight points and had a career-high 10 rebounds, while Smith scored 21 points -- both very positive experiences for two players who have hugged the party line throughout their time with the Rockets.

When the Rockets stepped into the long grind of MAC play, Dear was back in the lineup as Toledo put together a generally sluggish performance in a road loss to Central Michigan. He came off the bench and played 26 minutes, scoring 10 points.

Toledo insiders will be closely following the early course the team follows in the MAC, watching to see if the issues with Dear persist and drag down the team just as the Rockets seem poised to continue a significant recovery from several disappointing seasons.


Dennis steps up quickly

--Junior G Curtis Dennis has been a consistent contributor coming off the bench for the Rockets since he became eligible following the end of the fall semester. The transfer from New Mexico was averaging around 13 points and five rebounds per game through Jan. 8, and he had a career-high 20 points against Norfolk State. Dennis practiced with the Rockets last year but sat out the 2010-11 season per NCAA transfer rules.

--Before it stepped into Mid-American Conference play with a road loss at Central Michigan, Toledo had already won eight games, its most since the Rockets went 11-19 in the 2007-08 season. Prior to league play, this year's Toledo team had already doubled its win total from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns, when the Rockets suffered through identical 4-28 nightmares.

--If the Rockets needed a feel-good, confidence-building moment before jumping into MAC action, they got it. Toledo completely outclassed NAIA entry Indiana-Northwest by hammering the guests 107-43 in the Rockets' final tune-up before the start of league play. The 64-point margin of victory was the fifth largest in program history and the biggest winning margin since the Rockets fashioned a 103-66 win over Wright State in 2003.

--In its lopsided rout of Indiana-Northwest, Toledo scored on 31 of 36 first-half possessions.

BY THE NUMBERS: 72.7 percent -- The Rockets' free-throw percentage at the start of conference play, second best in the MAC.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This game was good for a lot of reasons. We had one goal: We didn't want to play down to the level of competition. I thought, from start to finish, we played with focus and discipline." -- Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk, after his team dismantled Indiana-Northwest 107-43 in the Rockets' final pre-conference game


--vs. Ball State, Jan. 10

KEY MATCHUPS: The Rockets find out how much their apparent deficiency in the middle will hurt them when they face the Cardinals and one of the MAC's top offensive producers, 6-foot-9 senior F Jarrod Jones. The active and athletic Jones will present significant matchup problems, so look for Toledo to use help inside as often as possible and try to pinch Jones with the shot-blocking ability of F Matt Smith and the physical play of F Reese Holliday.

at Western Michigan, Jan. 14

KEY MATCHUPS: The Rockets will seek to contain the Broncos' 6-9 sophomore C Matt Stainbrook, who has been hot lately and averaged about 16 points and nine rebounds over a recent four-game stretch. With their small, three-guard starting lineup, the Rockets will likely share the duty on Stainbrook, with F Reese Holliday and F Matt Smith switching off and helping out on the Broncos big man. If he gets out of the doghouse, sophomore C DeLino Dear will get in the act, as well.

FUTURES MARKET: Since becoming eligible with the end of the fall semester, junior G Curtis Dennis has had an immediate impact. The transfer from New Mexico averaged around 13 points and five rebounds a night through his first half-dozen games in the Toledo uniform. Besides adding valuable depth and versatility, Dennis is also pushing the Rockets' starters and forcing them to improve as he presses for more playing time.


--Sophomore C/F DeLino Dear was benched for the entire game against Indiana-Northwest, Toledo's final tune-up before the start of conference play. Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk offered no details on the nature of the punishment other than to say he was sending Dear a "strong message."

--Freshman G Ryan Majerle abruptly left the program in late December. Majerle was averaging 5.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game for Toledo, and he had played in every game prior to his departure.