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Published: Friday, 6/11/2010

UT's Kowalczyk deserves credit for overhaul

If and when Tod Kowalczyk, the new men's basketball coach at the University of Toledo, will ever be named Mid-American Conference coach of the year remains to be seen.

But if there was such an award as MAC general manager of the year, he and his staff would already have it locked up.

Talk about a metamorphosis! Kowalczyk inherited a team that went 4-28 last season and had no seniors. When he coaches his first game next November, only five players from last year's roster - and two of them were red-shirts who did not play - will still wear a Toledo uniform.

Some former Rockets left of their own volition. Some were encouraged, which is a polite way of saying they were escorted to the door. It's a touchy thing for any new coach. Some feel they have to honor scholarships and live with the last guy's mistakes. Some feel otherwise, pointing out correctly that grants-in-aid are renewed annually.

Kowalczyk really had no choice. There were too many players on the floor last season that were incapable of consistently contributing at the Division I level. As harsh as that may sound, it's likely that few who watched UT play last season will argue.

"The people who left the program allowed us to speed up the rebuilding process considerably," Kowalczyk said yesterday. "By our second year, only three scholarship players out of 13 will be holdovers. That's very quick to turn a roster over that much, and I hope it means a successful turnaround."

For those UT fans keeping score at home, the holdovers next season will include seniors Justin Anyijong and Mouhamed Lo as well as underclassmen Malcolm Griffin, Devin Russell, and Hayden Humes. The latter two, both in the 6-foot-9 range, are coming off redshirt seasons, and Kowalczyk calls them "our kind of guys, who want to be coached and want to learn and have an element of toughness."

With the announcement Wednesday that UT has signed a much-needed point guard - J.T. Thomas is a New Orleans product who spent last year at IMG Academy's prep school in Bradenton, Fla. - Kowalczyk has added three immediately eligible scholarship players, three transfers from Division I schools who will sit out next season but be allowed to practice with the team, and two recruited walk-ons.

He may not be done either. Although Kowalczyk said he could not yet comment, it has been reported on an Ann Arbor Web site that 6-5 shooter Anthony Wright, who played in 84 games for the University of Michigan over the last three years, is headed for UT, where he would be immediately eligible to play one season.

Wright has found an NCAA transfer loophole by completing his undergraduate degree, having remaining eligibility, and enrolling in a postgraduate course that is not offered at his current school. A one-year player normally might not interest a coach, but in Toledo's situation, with three transfers sitting out, Wright could be a perfect fit.

The big question mark, of course, is whether players available so late in the recruiting process have the type of talent necessary to help elevate a program that bottomed out so badly last season.

Of the three incoming freshmen with four years of eligibility, two are coming from prep schools, where they essentially were high school postgraduates, and both made the move since mid-May, by which time most schools have long since turned their attention to future recruiting classes.

"I can see that case being made, or that question being asked, about Delino Dear and J.T. Thomas," Kowalczyk acknowledged. "My answer would be that prep school guys, often with the encouragement of their coaches, typically wait to explore all their options with the idea being that the longer they wait the better and more options they'll have.

"My understanding is that Dear was also recruited by Drexel, Boise State, and East Carolina and that Thomas also considered Hofstra, Marshall, and Niagara. Those are all pretty decent Division I programs. They both had other good options. Getting a quality, skilled point guard like J.T. was crucial for the success of our program for next season and for seasons to come.

"I think for a first recruiting class, we've set a very solid foundation."

That foundation could be rocked by a nonconference schedule that includes road games against Alabama, Illinois, and Temple as well as home dates against Cincinnati, Rhode Island, and Valparaiso.

And Kowalczyk will be the first to admit his team remains thin on the perimeter.

But it's hard to imagine the Rockets aren't far better off today than they were when the clock struck midnight last March on a truly forgettable season.

To do it, Kowalczyk pretty much had to wipe the slate clean and start over. And that's what this large influx of players represents - a start.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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