Toledo guard Jonathan Williams, right, is second in the Mid-American Conference in scoring heading into today’s game against Northern Illinois. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
As the University of Toledo men’s basketball team hosts Northern Illinois today, the Rockets suddenly find themselves in a tie for first place in the Mid-American Conference West Division.
In what has been an up and down season for Toledo, a tough road win Tuesday at Ohio put the Rockets in position atop their division.
“I think that is going to be the MAC this year,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “There’s a lot of parity. There’s a lot of good teams. The team that stays together and stays healthy and is playing well at the end of the season is going to have a chance to win a championship.”
At 4-3 in the conference, Toledo (11-9 overall) is tied for the MAC West lead with Northern Illinois (12-8, 4-3 MAC), Eastern Michigan (12-8, 4-3), and Ball State (13-7, 4-3).
Kowalczyk said he approaches the season in stretches and has defined this point in the season as a potentially big five-game string of games. He broke it down to include a road game at Kent State which the Rockets lost 85-61 on Jan. 21, the game at Ohio which UT won 79-76, today’s game, and upcoming road contests against Ball State and rival Bowling Green.
“It’s been a huge stretch for us,” Kowalczyk said. “I don’t look at just these two games [NIU and Ball State]. I look at it as a five-game stretch. We try to break the season down into different categories. This time, we knew we had four out of five on the road. At Kent State, at Ohio, home to Northern, at Ball State and at Bowling Green. Those five games can help define and put us in position to have some separation or not. That’s really how we’ve talked to our players. We need some consistency and when you are playing four out of five on the road you need some mental toughness and some great togetherness.”
Toledo lost twice to Northern Illinois last season and hosting the Huskies with first place on the line at this time in the season has the Rockets’ attention.
“We definitely know that we are tied for first right now, and we want to come out and give our fans a show so we can stay in first place,” UT senior guard Jonathan Williams said. “We just want to execute down the stretch and take it one game at a time. We know that we have recently lost to them the past couple times we have played them. We have a little chip on our shoulder.”
As Toledo enters the dog days of the regular season, every game takes on heightened importance.
“We take it one game a time,” UT senior guard Jordan Lauf said. “Northern is coming in tomorrow and is also in first place. Every game from here on out can be a first-place type game.”
Against Ohio, Toledo scored 45 second-half points, and in an extremely efficient offensive half, the Rockets shot 58.6 percent from the field and had eight assists against just five turnovers.
“When we move the ball we are at our best, when we are sharing the ball and getting player and ball movement,” Lauf said. “We worked on it in practice and continue to get better.”
That second-half offensive performance at Ohio came against the top team in the MAC in scoring defense. The Rockets will face the second-ranked team in scoring defense as NIU comes in allowing just 67.8 points per game.
“They are a very physical defensive team,” Kowalczyk said. “They are different than Ohio. They are going to come after us. They are very aggressive. We are going to have to deal with more contact and get to the free throw line more. Those are going to be keys for us.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6110.