Toldeo walk-on making his presence felt
If the Rockets are going to make the dramatic turnaround they are hoping for, they are going to need a little magic. If Toledo has any chance of recovering from back-to-back 4-28 seasons and becoming a MAC contender, some amazing things have to happen.
Sophomore center Richard Wonnell might be one of the unexpected pieces in such an unlikely puzzle.
The 6-foot-9 walk-on plays only about seven minutes per game, but he does not appear to be intimidated at all by the moment or the matchups when the Rockets call on him. Timely contributions from players such as Wonnell will be vital in any Toledo surge in the coming weeks.
In a recent two-point home loss to one of the Mid-American Conference's favorites, Ball State, Wonnell had a huge role in keeping things close. He was matched up with 6-9 forward Jarrod Jones, arguably the best player in the MAC.
With the Rockets lacking size in their starting lineup, Wonnell was called on to provide some physical resistance against Jones' attempts to rule the inside. Everything Jones got came at a fairly high price.
"He did a great job at both ends," a spent Jones said after the narrow win over the Rockets. Wonnell scored a career-high nine points and grabbed three rebounds in about 14 minutes of play.
Wonnell, who came from a small high school just a few miles from Toledo and received scant attention from college recruiters, downplayed his role.
"I'm a walk-on. I haven't done that much," Wonnell said. "I've gotten a lot better. I give credit to all the coaches for pushing me. Every day I'm trying to work hard to prove I'm capable of playing. But I always respect Coach's decision because he puts the best players on the floor, and like I said, I'm a walk-on."
Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk enjoyed Wonnell's performance against the Cardinals.
"I'm unbelievably proud," Kowalczyk said about Wonnell's contribution. "This team has been lacking certain things; maturity and consistent energy are two of them. Richard Wonnell brought energy."
Holliday provides a valuable presence on the boards
--Sophomore G Reese Holliday was averaging 7.3 points per game, and he ranked second on the team and eighth in the MAC at 6.6 rebounds per game through Jan. 15. Holliday also was among the conference leaders at nearly five defensive rebounds per game. He had a career-high 14 rebounds in a December game against Youngstown State.
--Sophomore G Rian Pearson has been Toledo's top impact player through the first couple months of the season, his first on the floor for the Rockets. After sitting out last season as a transfer, Pearson was third in the MAC with 8.3 rebounds per game and fourth in the conference with 16.5 points per game through Jan. 15. He was averaging better than three offensive rebounds per game, making him in the MAC leader in that category.
--Toledo had eight victories by mid-January, the program's highest total since the Rockets went 11-19 in the 2007-08 season. Toledo has already doubled its win totals from the past two seasons, which ended with identical 4-28 marks.
BY THE NUMBERS: 15 -- The approximate percentage-point difference in shooting accuracy from the field in Toledo victories as opposed to losses, through Jan. 15. In its wins, Toledo was shooting around 51 percent from the field. In the losses, that number dropped to just under 36 percent.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's more a lack of execution and attention to detail. We have to do a much a better job of understanding our principles and philosophies." -- -- Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk, on his team's defensive struggles.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Northern Illinois, Jan. 18
KEY MATCHUPS: The Rockets face the MAC's bottom feeder and get a chance to see a conference program that is struggling the way Toledo had the past two seasons. The Huskies won just once in the nonconference portion of their schedule, and they started MAC play 1-2. Northern Illinois looks to F Tim Toler, a 6-foot-7 senior who scores about 11 points per game, as its leader. Toler does most of his work around the basket, where Toledo F Matt Smith likely will get the call to defend him. Northern Illinois' thin and wispy sophomore F Askel Bolin is solid shooter and good rebounder, but Toledo's G/F Reese Holliday should have a big physical edge if they match up.
--at Eastern Michigan, Jan. 21
KEY MATCHUPS: The Rockets get their first look at 7-foot Syracuse transfer Da'Shonte Riley, who just recently was cleared by the NCAA to play for the Eagles. Toledo will likely try F DeLino Dear and C Richard Wonnell, a pair of backups, in support roles to minimize Riley's impact. PG Darrell Lampley is Eastern Michigan's top scoring threat, so Toledo PG Julius Brown will be occupied trying to slow the savvy senior.
FUTURES MARKET: Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk rolled the dice and turned his offense over to a true freshman, PG Julius Brown. The gamble has paid off nicely, and it appears the dividends are likely to increase as the Chicago native improves from week to week. With Brown at quarterback, the Rockets were averaging 75.4 points per game, second best in the MAC through Jan. 15. Brown had handed out seven or more assists in nine games, and he led all conference freshmen with an average of 5.5 assists per game. As Brown matures and gets stronger, the situation at point guard will only strengthen for the Rockets.
--Sophomore C/F DeLino Dear might still be in coach Tod Kowalczyk's doghouse. Dear, who started every game but one last season, was benched for the recent game with Indiana-Northwest with his coach saying it was time to send a "strong message" to Dear. After playing 26 minutes against Central Michigan in the next game, Dear was on the floor for just two minutes against Ball State, then just four minutes in the loss at Western Michigan. Through Jan. 15, he led the Rockets with his 70 percent shooting from the field.
--Freshman G Ryan Majerle, who abruptly left the Toledo program in late December, has surfaced at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich. Majerle played in 12 games before leaving Toledo. He averaged 5.3 points per game and shot 79.2 percent (19 of 24) from the free-throw line for the Rockets.
--Sophomore G Rian Pearson tied a Toledo program record with seven steals in the recent home loss to Ball State. Pearson also contributed 19 points and seven rebounds in the game.