DeKALB, Ill. - The University of Toledo basketball team arrived here yesterday on its final road trip of the season. The motor-coach journey back home in the wee hours of tomorrow morning could be the longest bus ride of their lives, if things don't go well for the Rockets.
Toledo finds itself in a difficult quandary of its own making. The Rockets must win to stay in the championship mix in the Mid-American Conference's West Division. And they must win against some daunting odds.
MAC teams have lost conference road games this season at a nearly 70 percent clip. The Rockets have won just twice in seven MAC road games this year.
Coach Stan Joplin knows his team, the consensus pre-season pick as the favorite to win the West Division and the overall MAC title, was painted into this corner with its own brush.
"We have nobody to blame for that but ourselves," Joplin said. "It is very difficult to win on the road in this conference, but we've had several opportunities to win games, and let them slip away at the end. We obviously can't let that keep happening."
Toledo is a game behind West Division co-leaders Bowling Green and Western Michigan, and those two square off in Kalamazoo
The winner of that game can claim the division title if it closes
the season Saturday with another win. If Toledo can win out,
and Bowling Green and Western Michigan both lose at least once
this week, the Rockets can take a share of the West championship.
That door only opens for the Rockets to make a move for the crown if they can win here tonight, and at home Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
It s going to be difficult, Joplin said, because Northern Illinois has only lost at home one time, and that was to Western Michigan early in the conference schedule. That s it. Most teams play a lot better at home, and they are one of them.
This week s final games of the season also carry heavy MAC
tournament implications for the Rockets and just about everyone
The two division winners receive first-round byes, and the
team with the next-best overall conference record also gets a
The three teams with byes move directly to the quarterfinal round at Gund Arena in Cleveland, while the other 10 MAC teams play fi rst-round games at campus sites.
All along, it has been about getting to Cleveland, Joplin said. You have to get there, and then see what happens. But to win the tournament, you have to first get to Cleveland, someway, somehow.
Toledo enters tonight s game as part of an eight-team logjam
of contenders for those top three seeds. East leader Miami (11-5),
Western Michigan (10-6), Bowling Green (10-6), Akron (10-6),
Ohio (10-6), Kent State (10-6), Buffalo (10-6) and the Rockets
(9-7) are part of that complicated picture, which will start sorting itself out tonight.
Northern Illinois took a 70-67 win over Ball State on Sunday.
The Huskies (11-15, 7-10) made 28 of 31 free throws, including
a perfect 13 of 13 from Todd Peterson, who had 26 points in