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Published: Sunday, 3/11/2012

Kowalczyk hoping for another game

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

It is Selection Sunday, the official start of the real March Madness, a day even marginal college basketball fans relish.

You would think college basketball coaches would be as enthusiastic.

"Not me," said Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk. "It's a miserable day for me."

It will be a little less miserable if Kowalczyk's Rockets get a postseason opportunity.

Long after the NCAA field of 68 teams is announced and after the 32-team National Invitation Tournament is in place, two other tournaments will set their fields. Neither the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) nor the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) has the cachet of their two bigger brothers and neither draws much interest from casual fans, but they still present championship opportunities.

"I think there is certainly a chance we'll be involved, but it will depend on how some things play out," Kowalczyk said. "I'll be paying more attention to the NIT selections than the NCAA because if a couple NIT bubble teams get in that tournament it will help our chances to get in the CIT or CBI."

For anyone who might question the relevance of those events, Kowalczyk points at postseason opportunities for football and women's basketball teams.

"Something close to 50 percent of [FBS] college football teams play in a bowl game," he said. "And the women's NIT has 64 teams where the NIT for men is half that. So these other two tournaments [a combined 40-team field] increase the percentage of men's teams that get to the postseason.

"I think we all need to celebrate good seasons more in men's basketball and these tournaments provide that opportunity to additional teams."

UT's Rockets certainly have something to celebrate. After a combined 15 wins in the previous three seasons, Toledo went 18-16, including two wins in the MAC tournament, during the 2011-12 campaign.

Winners of just four games in Kowalczyk's first season, the 14-win improvement ranked second in Division I college basketball behind South Carolina-Upstate, which improved from 5-25 to 20-12. Ironically, the Rockets beat Upstate 75-70 early in the year on a neutral court.

UT accomplished much despite having zero seniors and only two juniors on its roster.

"We were, I think, the fifth youngest team in Division I and we had a transfer [Curtis Dennis] become eligible at mid-season," Kowalczyk said. "As a result, we had a period where not everybody was on the same page and we struggled. But from Jan. 15th on, despite a couple hiccups, we played pretty consistently and I think at a level with the better teams in our league."

Beginning with a 77-73 win Feb. 8 over Ohio and ending with a 65-57 loss to the same team in the MAC tournament quarterfinals, Toledo went 8-3 down the stretch.

"To have the second-best turnaround in the country is clearly a credit to our players," Kowalczyk said. "We regained some respect in the league and nationally. That said, I think our players would be the first to tell you we're disappointed with 18 wins. We left a few out there. We could have accomplished more."

The Rockets had the MAC's top freshman in point guard Julius Brown, and in sophomore Rian Pearson claimed the only player to rank among the MAC's top 10 in points, rebounds, and steals. He led the league in scoring (16.4 points per game) and was one of the top five guards in the nation in rebounding (8.5).

Ironically, despite finishing third in MAC player-of-the-year voting, Pearson did not make the coaches' all-league first team.

Kowalczyk said he does "not have a lot of faith" in what he called a political voting system.

"Rian was very mature about it," Kowalczyk said. "His only reaction was to say that we had to win more."

Perhaps that applies to the league's coach-of-the-year voting too. Despite UT's dramatic turnaround Kowalczyk did not receive a single vote, which is absurd.

It is not so absurd to think the Rockets, with the addition of incoming 6-foot-9, 250-pound center Nathan Boothe to improve the team's play in the post, will be in the mix of serious MAC contenders next season along with Akron and Ohio.

Maybe then the Rockets won't have to wait until the midnight hour on Selection Sunday to learn, fingers crossed, if they'll get another game.

If and when that situation exists, maybe the day won't be so miserable for Kowalczyk.

"I can't wait for the opportunity to have [an NCAA] selection party for our players and fans at Savage Arena," he said.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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