For the first six weeks of the basketball season, the role of favorite has been an uncomfortable fit for the University of Toledo. The Rockets (4-5), who were picked by most major publications and the league s news media to win both the West Division title and the Mid-American Conference overall championship and tournament, lost five of their first six games.
But the chore of really living up to their advance billing starts in earnest today when UT plays Eastern Michigan in its MAC opener. For the Rockets, the second season is the one that counts, and it begins in Ypsilanti with the first of 18 MAC games to be played in the next two months.
It s all about winning the MAC and getting to the NCAA tournament, UT senior Keith Triplett said about the focus of the season. We know a lot of people picked us to win the league this year, and we don t have a problem with that. We want to win the league and go to the NCAA tournament, so it s OK if we re picked first. You want to be picked first.
UT coach Stan Joplin expects the Rockets, who are on a three-game winning streak, to get a stout test from the Eagles (7-3), who have not lost in five games at home this season. Eastern is in its fifth season under coach Jim Boone, who has a veteran-dominated lineup, and one very talented freshman.
I think this is probably the best team Eastern has had since Jim Boone took over, Joplin said. They like to push the ball in transition and they shoot it well from the outside and get to the free throw line. We ve had some good games in the past against them and they were the only team to beat us at home last year.
The Rockets, who are trying to win Toledo s first MAC title since 1980, have lost three of their last four games to the Eagles, including that 84-79 setback at Savage Hall last February. Eastern Michigan is also expected to be one of UT s primary challengers in the West Division this time around.
We re going to have to play extremely well to win, Joplin said, and it s a big game since it s also a game within our division. We have to continue to improve. This is an early test for us and will give us a clue of where we re at.
Triplett leads the Rockets in scoring at 14.4 points per game, and is the top defender in the MAC with 3.2 steals per game. He snapped out of his early-season shooting funk during UT s three games in the San Juan Shootout just before Christmas, where he hit 48.6 percent from the field. Triplett had 21 points in Toledo s 90-71 win over Lake Superior State on Wednesday.
The Rockets most productive inside player has been sophomore forward Florentino Valencia, who sat out the Lake Superior State game to allow more healing time for his sore ankle, which he injured in Puerto Rico. He is expected back in the lineup against Eastern Michigan, although Joplin sometimes prefers to bring Valencia off the bench to provide a spark.
Tino gives us a lot of energy, Joplin said. He can score in the paint and is a good threat for us down low.
Valencia averages 11.9 points and about six rebounds per game. He is fourth in the MAC in field goal accuracy at 55.7 percent. The native of Chicago started 11 times last year as a freshman and averaged 6.8 points while shooting 54.6 percent from the field.
Toledo faces an Eastern Michigan team with four players scoring in double figures. The Eagles are led by 6-4 freshman guard Darryl Garrett at 16.6 points, 6-6 senior forward Markus Austin at 13.3, 6-8 junior forward John Bowler at 12.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and senior point guard Michael Ross at 10.7 points per game.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.