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Rockets looking to seize control of division against Broncos

03/01/2014, 12:27am EST
By RYAN AUTULLO BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Big MAC men's showdown at UT

Today the University of Toledo basketball team looks to lock up a school record, inch closer to a division title, and get a leg up on the top seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament.

And also to reclaim their mojo.

“We have to get our mojo back,” point guard Julius Brown said.

Once unbeatable, the Rockets enter March vulnerable, losing two of four and sputtering in their wins. Western Michigan, today’s opponent, was once vulnerable and now unbeatable.

For the second year in a row these budding rivals of contrasting styles will lock up late in the season at Savage Arena with the West division title swaying in the balance. (They shared the title last year, although Toledo, banned from the postseason, is not recognized as champion by the league)

This time the stakes are sweetened by the allure of the top seed in the league tournament. Today’s winner will seize control with two regular season games to go.

“They’re a good team, and we’re a good team, so it’s going to be a fun game,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said.

The university announced on Friday that about 400 tickets remain unsold for this rematch to a game Western Michigan claimed 87-76 in the MAC opener almost two months ago.

WMU, which most predicted before the season to concede the division title to Toledo, did not lose in February, rattling off eight straight wins to take ownership of the MAC’s top record at 12-3 — a full game ahead of Toledo and Buffalo.

The Broncos (19-8 overall) escaped four-win Ball State in overtime Wednesday, the same night Toledo decelerated further in a road loss at middle-of-the-road Northern Illinois. Instead of joining the 1939-40 Toledo team with a program-record 24 wins, the Rockets got lousy to mediocre performances from just about everyone other than Rian Pearson (27 points, nine rebounds). 

Starters Nathan Boothe (zero points) and Justin Drummond (one rebound) fouled out, just as they did in the first meeting against Western Michigan.

It was the first time in 56 college games that the sophomore center Boothe did not score a point.

“I have an unbelievable amount of confidence and faith in Nathan Boothe,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s an unbelievably selfless and tough player. He will be fine.”

Kowalczyk, whose team began the season 12-0 but was 5-3 in February, said his players “need to do a better job of respecting every opponent and every guy we play against individually and collectively.” Too often, he said, “our guys think talent’s just going to take over.”

At issue is offensive efficiency, once a major strength. Following six games of scoring 80 or more points, Toledo has managed 44, 60, 85, and 66.

Its defense, which ranks 268th nationally, but has been OK of late, was a sieve in the first meeting with Western Michigan. The Broncos shot 60 percent from the floor, using explosions by complementary parts Connor Tava (25 points, 9 of 9 shooting) and Austin Richie (four 3-pointers, 19 points) to push the Rockets into a 20-point first-half hole. WMU’s marquee guys David Brown (12 points) and Shayne Whittington (10 points, 10 boards) took over after halftime.

UT’s Brown, who did a weak job guarding Richie, expects the Rockets to tighten defensively. And to also find their mojo.

“I think we’re gonna get back to it soon,” he said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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Tag(s): Toledo