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Published: Friday, 5/18/2012

COMMENTARY

Transfer game played well by UT

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The University of Toledo men's basketball team will be banned from postseason play in 2012-13, but there's nothing that says the Rockets can't make a run at the Mid-American Conference's regular-season championship. If they do, four transfer players -- Rian Pearson, Matt Smith, Dominique Buckley, and Curtis Dennis -- will play key roles in that bid.

A year later, UT will be free to pursue the program's first NCAA tournament berth in 33 long seasons. We can presume that four transfers -- erase Buckley and Dennis, add J.D. Weatherspoon and Justin Drummond -- will be big contributors to that team.

Once upon a time, this reliance on transfers would not have been perceived as a good thing. Many coaches avoided these athletes like the plague. They were carriers of bad attitudes, bad grades, bad experiences, or all of the above. Why should I, as a coach, make somebody else's problems my problems?

But when Tod Kowalczyk became head coach at UT after the 2009-10 season, he had other problems. There was a dearth of Division I talent, and those lights coming down the tracks toward him like a freight train with four engines were NCAA scholarship restrictions for past academic shortcomings. Plus, mid-majors like Toledo rarely recruit the type of high school athletes who have the immediate talent to pull a worst-to-first rabbit out of the hat.

So Kowalczyk was appreciative when Pearson and Smith followed him from Wisconsin-Green Bay. Buckley (Iowa State) and Dennis (New Mexico) were bonuses who helped orchestrate an almost-overnight revival from four wins to 19 wins, the last of the 19 during the 2011-12 season being the Rockets' first postseason victory in a decade.

The perception of transfers has changed in recent years. Sure, such decisions still stem from dissatisfaction, most often in playing time when their incoming class is outclassed by the next class. But coaching movement and coaching styles often play a role too. Athletes by the hundreds change schools today like you and I change deodorant.

As a result, transfers are no longer tagged as problems as much as solutions to problems.

Ohio went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this year, where it gave North Carolina a run for its money, in large part due to the contributions of Walter Offutt, a one-time Buckeye, who averaged 12.4 points. The second best 3-point shooter in the MAC, Akron's Brian Walsh, transferred from Xavier. The league's "sixth-man" award went to Akron's Quincy Diggs, who transferred from New Orleans. Eastern Michigan won the MAC West with defense, and 7-foot transfer Da'Shonte Riley from Syracuse was at the back end of that zone.

On the women's side, we have only to look some 25 miles down I-75 at a Bowling Green program that was expected to be "down" last season. But transfers Alexis Rogers (Duke) and Danielle Havel (DePaul) became starters, and the Falcons cruised to another regular-season MAC championship.

The Rocket men have dabbled in transfers through the years, but UT has never been regarded as Transfer Tech. Weatherspoon's recent decision to come here from Ohio State may well change that. And Kowalczyk's role in quickly molding Toledo into a "destination program" with a promising core of high school recruits mixed in is among the many reasons he received a deserved contract extension Thursday.

Weatherspoon and Drummond, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's "sixth man" last season at Loyola (Md.), will sit next year and join Pearson and Smith on the court in 2013-14. Toledo fans are giddy with anticipation.

Who knows? Maybe UT officials will have to transfer some of those fading banners dangling from the Savage Arena rafters to make room for some new ones.

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



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