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Published: Friday, 10/22/2004

The pressure begins for Rockets

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

CLEVELAND - When you have all of your starters returning, and after you won 20 games with them last year and then played in a postseason tournament, people take notice.

The University of Toledo has ridden those credentials right into the favorite's role in the Mid-American Conference. The league's media, meeting here yesterday for their annual preseason men's basketball session, made the Rockets the prohibitive favorite to win the MAC West Division, and then take the conference tournament.

Buffalo, a 5-23 team just two years ago that shed its perpetual doormat tag last season by going 17-12 and advancing to the tournament quarterfinals for the first time, was picked to win the East Division. The Bulls also return their complete starting five, and their top 10 scorers.

Toledo coach Stan Joplin thinks his team will face interesting challenges in his ninth season, since they have been labeled by most as the clear-cut team to beat.

"What that means is, we will be the team everyone is shooting for, and we'll have to play every game like it is our last one," Joplin said. "We won't be able to sit back and turn it on and off, and just play hard in stretches. We can expect every team on the schedule to be ready for us and anxious to play Toledo."

Joplin, who has the preseason favorite for MAC player of the year honors in senior guard Keith Triplett, said the first order of business for the Rockets is to maintain the same style of preparation they used last season.

"You don't want to change the way you do things, just because someone decided to label you as the favorite," he said. "We still have to use the same approach, and work every bit as hard. It is nice to have people talking about your program in a favorable and positive way, but it can't affect how hard you work."

Bowling Green, coming off a 14-17 season, was picked fifth in the seven team West. The Falcons have to adjust to the loss of All-MAC guard Ron Lewis, who transferred to Ohio State, but eighth-year coach Dan Dakich does have four players who started a lot of games last season returning. Dakich said his team will have to prove it deserves more recognition as the season progresses.

"In our case, picking us there probably makes sense, since it is just based on what we have back, and what we did last year," he said. "But I like my guys, and I hope we can do better than that."

Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, who had never finished higher than sixth in the East division in his first four years and then came in third last season, said his team is entering a completely foreign realm as a favorite. But he thinks maturity will help the Bulls, since the freshmen and sophomores from that 5-23 team are now juniors and seniors.

"We were picked last in the East last year, so we still have to do the same things that allowed us to end up being somewhat successful," Witherspoon said. "Having leadership helps you win games, and typically that leadership comes with experienced players. We are a more veteran team now, and you need guys who have walked down that path before. You can do some good things with freshmen and sophomores, but winning isn't one of them."

The two divisional favorites, Toledo and Buffalo, face off Jan. 9 in New York. The Rockets open the season Nov. 19 at Vanderbilt, while Bowling Green opens at DePaul on Nov. 20.

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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