Stan Joplin's season-long fight to get his veteran players and freshmen on the same page while also trying to retain his job has been a test of Joplin's character and coaching ability.
Will Joplin be permitted to finish what he started at the University of Toledo?
No one is saying. But UT winning nine of its final 11 Mid-American Conference games following a slow start indicates the Rockets are buying what Joplin is selling.
Tonight's first-round MAC tournament game between the surging Toledo Rockets (17-10, 10-8) and the struggling Bowling Green Falcons (9-20, 5-13) at Savage Hall should answer a lot of questions.
The Rockets need a win tonight to advance in the tournament and have a chance to play in the MAC championship game, which is one of the unofficial demands being made by athletic director Mike O'Brien for Joplin to remain at UT.
But in order for the Rockets to be in a favorable position to determine Joplin's fate, it was necessary for Joplin to grow as a coach.
The midseason turnaround illustrates what Joplin's Rockets can do when they're challenged.
A 1-6 conference record opened Joplin's eyes. Being five games under .500 on Jan. 21 was frustrating and potentially devastating for Joplin's continued tenure at UT and the Rockets' season.
Criticism from media and fans has changed Joplin. He's now coaching with desperation and without fear of consequences.
The best way for Joplin to earn a contract extension is to win games.
Instead of trying to please everyone, Joplin decided to win or lose on his terms.
He stopped begging the Rockets to see things his way.
If senior Sammy Villegas launches a 3-pointer too early in the shot clock, or if junior Florentino Valencia fails to box out, Joplin won't hesitate to pull that player and dress him down.
In Saturday's 66-64 win at lowly Central Michigan, Joplin benched several regulars in the first half, Valencia and Villegas included, in order to make a point.
Keeping Valencia and Villegas happy doesn't compare to developing a tough team mind-set.
One of the knocks on Joplin's teams has been that they lack consistency because their concentration and effort rises and falls depending on the opponent and the situation.
A year ago, Joplin looked the other way when former player Keith Triplett missed an assignment or didn't play with full effort. The other players noticed. This year no one is bigger than the team.
Joplin doesn't worry about bruising feelings, or how it looks if he plays freshmen over underclassmen.
Freshman Ridley Johnson, who averages seven minutes a game, was on the court during crunch time against Central Michigan. Johnson's last-second rebound and lay-in extended UT's conference winning streak to seven games.
Another freshman, Jonathan Amos, is a valued defender who brings energy off the bench and is third on the team in steals despite averaging only 16.4 minutes per game. Amos' two free throws with 3.9 seconds to play earned a 67-66 win at Northern Illinois that gave the Rockets a 2-6 conference record and helped revitalize their season.
Joplin finally determined it doesn't matter if his players like him, as long as they respect him.
Was Joplin's message received?
We're about to find out.
Contact Blade columnist
John Harris at: