MT. PLEASANT, Mich. - There are games that mean a lot, and games that mean little. Then there are games like tonight's University of Toledo-at-Central Michigan affair (UT at CMU, 7 p.m., BCSN, 1370 AM).
On the first pass it does not look like a potential ESPN Classic. But there are always the subplots, and there are plenty of those.
Toledo (17-9, 11-6 MAC) can secure the No. 3 seed in the Mid-American Conference Tournament by beating the downtrodden Chippewas (5-21, 1-14), and getting a little help elsewhere. That seed carries with it a first-round bye and a ticket straight to the quarterfinals at Gund Arena in Cleveland next week.
Central Michigan does not like the view from the league's basement, and needs a feel-good game. The Chippewas have continued their recent trend of feast and famine. After winning the MAC in 2001, Central Michigan dropped to next-to-last in the league in 2002, won it again last year, and now is anchored in the cellar again.
How the Rockets fare against Central likely will have a lot to do with how seniors A.J. Shellabarger and Ricardo Thomas play. They were the dynamic duo when Toledo upended MAC West champ Western Michigan on Saturday. Thomas had 16 points and four rebounds and hit 8 of 10 shots from the field. Shellabarger had 11 points and five rebounds, and hit 5 of 7 from the field.
“When those two guys play like that, it takes us to another level,” UT coach Stan Joplin said. “And then we don't have to rely on our freshmen all of the time. That's something that we desperately need.”
UT had lost four straight before beating Western Michigan. Joplin said the Broncos, and East champ Kent State, have moved to the top of the MAC on the backs of their seniors.
“The one thing we've been missing is some senior leadership and some senior play,” Joplin said, “and when we got it, it made a big difference.”
Joplin started the pair against Western since it was UT's final home game of the season. It was the first start of the year for Thomas, who started 16 games last season and has 37 starts in his UT career after transferring from Eastern Kentucky in 2000.
Shellabarger had seven starts a year ago and had 40 in his UT career before this season. He started three games earlier in the year when freshman center Allen Pinson was out with an injury. Outside of that, the UT seniors have done spot duty as role players coming off the bench, and both average about 14 minutes of play per game.
“They haven't really played up to the expectation level,” Joplin said of the two seniors, “and that really hurts. It's almost like fool's gold. Every once in a while they do it, but they don't do it on a consistent basis. When they score inside, that really helps us with our perimeter game, because we can shoot the ball pretty well.”
When the two have played, they have usually produced. For instance, Keith Triplett leads the Rockets in rebounding with 124, but Thomas is second with 99. In rebounds per minute, Thomas' total is nearly double that of Triplett.
For his part, Shellabarger and Pinson have the same number of rebounds, 89, but Shellabarger has played 78 fewer minutes - nearly two full games' worth.
Thomas said he and Shellabarger have adjusted to their roles as backups, and try to make some impact when they get the call.
“It's tough not being in there, but you succeed or fail as a team,” Thomas said. “And we have to do our part, whatever that is. Things haven't always been smooth, but we've stuck it out and always done what's best for the team.”
Shellabarger, who started 12 games as a freshman on the 1999-2000 team before sitting out the next year as a redshirt, said there is a sense of urgency in the way he and Thomas are going about things, with the MAC Tournament right around the corner.
“Me and Rick know this is it for us, and we really want to help take this team to something special at the end of our last season,” Shellabarger said. “We've both had to figure out our roles at different times along the way, but we've hung in there, and a lot of times picked each other up. We like to think there's a special kind of energy at work now when we're both out there.”
The Rockets face a Central Michigan team that lost 11 straight earlier in the year, then got its only MAC win at home against Northern Illinois. After that came a couple more losses before the Chippewas beat Evansville at home in the ESPN Bracket Buster. They are still trying to figure out just which bracket that one broke, but Joplin still casts a cautious eye on Central.
“We can't afford to look past Central Michigan,” Joplin said. “Central is playing their last two games at home and they will be looking to get on a roll before the MAC Tournament. We're going to have to come out like we did against Western Michigan or we're going to get beat.”
Toledo is in position to land the No. 3 seed if it can get by Central tonight, and bank on Miami losing on the road at East champ Kent State tonight, or to Marshall on Saturday.
UT is a half-game ahead of Miami (15-10, 10-6) in the overall MAC standings, and is the only MAC team that will end its season tonight.
The Rockets already have clinched a second-place finish in the MAC West. Toledo had finished second or better in the West for five of the last six years.
Senior center Gerrit Brigitha leads Central Michigan with averages of 15.8 points and 6.6 rebounds to rank seventh and ninth in the MAC, respectively. The Rockets have lost three straight at Central's Rose Arena.