Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk says he is 'hopeful' his team can still win the MAC West this season. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
Fresh off one of the toughest losses of the season, University of Toledo men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk still is confident that the Rockets can win the Mid-American Conference’s West Division.
An overtime loss to Western Michigan, in which Toledo had a 15-point second-half lead, hurt the Rockets’ chances to take the division. However, they still are within striking distance with three regular-season games left.
Toledo hosts Central Michigan today, then is home Tuesday against Ball State before travelling to Eastern Michigan to close out the season next Saturday.
“We’re still hopeful for a MAC West championship,” Kowalczyk said. “We have Ball State at home, so we have some catch up time there. We’re still playing like we are going to play for a championship.”
If the season ended today, Toledo would be the No. 7 seed for the MAC tournament and would host No. 10 seed Bowling Green in the first round. The top four teams in the conference get byes into the quarterfinals in Cleveland, while seed Nos. 5-8 host first-round games against seed Nos. 9-12.
After the stinging loss to the Broncos, Toledo has to shift its focus.
“That’s February in college basketball,” Kowalczyk said. “You have to learn from it, you’ve got to correct it, and you’ve got to move on quickly. Because when you have three games in [eight] days, you have to move fast.”
The first step for the Rockets is the game against the Chippewas. The matchup will feature the two top scoring offenses in the MAC. Central Michigan averages 89.0 points per game, while Toledo averages 80.1.
Central Michigan’s high-powered offense is led by the two top scorers in the MAC in Marcus Keene, who leads the country in scoring at 29.8 points per game, and Braylon Rayson who scores 20.8.
“They are one of the best shooting teams in the country,” Kowalczyk said. “They have the leading scorer in the country in Keene, and Rayson is the best 3-point shooter in school history. We have to do a great job in transition, and we have to do a great job on those two guards.”
Toledo’s top priority will be slowing down Keene and Rayson.
“They have two really good scoring guards,” UT senior Jordan Lauf said. “They are two of the best scoring guards in our league. So we need to contain those two and just do what we do.”
While the Chippewas can score with any team in the country, they also are dead last in the MAC in scoring defense, allowing opponents to score 86.0 points per game.
Toledo lost 96-88 at Central Michigan on Jan. 13, a game in which Keene scored 20 points, well below his season average, but Rayson did burn Toledo for 28.
“I thought they outscrapped us for loose balls in that game, and I thought that was really the difference,” Kowalczyk said.
Toledo currently is tied for third place in the MAC West standings with Northern Illinois (7-8). The Rockets are two games behind leader Ball State (9-6) and one game behind second-place Western Michigan (8-7).
With each game left in the season carrying a heavy weight on how Toledo’s tournament seed will play out, the Rockets are doing everything they can to stay in the moment and take care of what they can control.
“We are just taking it one game at a time,” Lauf said. “However it plays out, anything can happen. Our mentality right now is to approach it each game at a time and see what happens.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6110.
Central Michigan at Toledo men
■ Time: 6 p.m.
■ Records: Central Michigan is 16-12, 6-9 Mid-American Conference; Toledo is 14-14, 7-8 MAC.
■ TV: CBS Sports Network
■ Radio: 1370 AM
■ Series: Toledo leads 58-38
■ Notes: Toledo is tied for third place in the MAC West Division with Northern Illinois and is two games in back of leader Ball State and one game behind second-place Western Michigan. … The Rockets are coming off a 61-56 overtime loss Tuesday to Western Michigan. With that, Toledo tied a national record with eight overtime games this season. UT’s previous record was five in the 1971-72 season. … UT senior guard Jonathan Williams is third in the MAC in scoring, averaging 19.7 points per game. … UT senior forward Steve Taylor, Jr., scores 15.7 ppg, along with a MAC-best 12.4 rebounds per game and a team-high 3.6 assists per game. … Sophomore guard Jaelan Sanford adds 13.9 ppg. … Toledo is second in the MAC in scoring offense at 81.0 ppg. … Central Michigan has lost three consecutive games, including an 89-66 home loss Tuesday to Northern Illinois. … CMU is second in the nation with 12.7 3-pointers per game and is third in the nation and tops in the MAC at 89.0 points per game. … CMU junior guard Marcus Keene leads the nation with 29.8 ppg, and senior guard Braylon Rayson ranks second in the MAC at 20.8 ppg.