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Friday, October 31, 2014
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Published: Friday, 2/7/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Rockets still chasing UT’s best teams

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Two members of the University of Toledo pep band walked out of Savage Arena together Wednesday night. One said to the other, “This might be our best team ever.”

Whoa, doggie! Short memories don’t work in this discussion. Sure, it has been awhile, but this is not the first time five pretty good players have donned Toledo uniforms at the same time. There were great players and great seasons, even a mini-dynasty in the Mid-American Conference, back in the day.

This Rocket team is poised to improve to 20-3 with a win Saturday at 4-16 Ball State. Coach Tod Kowalczyk acknowledged 20 wins is a “magic number,” but that his team has far more in mind.

That far more will define this team, which has nine games left in its regular season. No trophies have been awarded yet, and UT’s postseason potential, while promising, is still speculative.

This group nonetheless could be special in the annals of a program that has 18 seasons with 20 or more wins, seven MAC championships (either regular season, MAC tournament, or both). Ending in 1984-85, UT players and fans enjoyed 26 consecutive winning seasons. There’s some history here.

The best-ever UT teams? This is one man’s opinion:

■ The 1966-67 team, the second for Bob Nichols, the school’s winningest coach, went 23-1 before coming to a premature and unexpected end in the NCAA opener. The Rockets were upset by Virginia Tech one week after beating the same team 90-71 in the regular-season finale at the old UT Field House.

Led by Steve Mix (21.8 points, 10.2 rebounds per game), arguably the best player in school history, that team featured five players whose scoring average was in double figures. Mix was joined by Willie Babione, John Brisker, Bill Backensto, and Bob Miller. And there was John Rudley, too, helping run the show. The current UT team has five players averaging double figures.

■ The great Harold Anderson cemented his legacy coaching at Bowling Green, but he started at Toledo for eight years, a stretch that included just one team with double-digit losses. His 1939-40 squad still holds the single-season record with 24 wins, but his last team (1941-42) went 23-5 and may have been his best.

With the legendary Bob Gerber leading the nation in scoring (he had 37 in the NIT at Madison Square Garden against Rhode Island) the Rockets finished the regular season with a 65-39 win against Ohio for a 35th consecutive win at home, where Andy’s teams went 110-13.

■ There are too many names to mention during Nichols’ mini-dynasty that produced five straight 20-win seasons and three consecutive MAC titles at the end of the 1970s. But Harvey Knuckles and Jay Lehman starred on all the championship teams, so we’ll name them.

The best? Most UT fans are partial to the 1978-79 team that beat Iowa in the NCAA on Stan Joplin’s buzzer-beating jumper. I might argue for the following season’s team, on which the recently departed Dick Miller was a senior, that won the first-ever MAC tournament before losing a 94-91 thriller to Florida State in the NCAA. It’s probably a coin flip.

■ Coach Burl Friddle followed Anderson and behind the talented Dallas Zuber finished runner-up in the 1943 NIT. Jerry Bush’s teams had some impressive wins and high poll rankings in 1949-50 and 1950-51 and won UT’s first MAC title in ’54.

Does this year’s team fit in with any of those? Time will tell.

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



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