CLEVELAND - Stan Joplin's University of Toledo men's basketball team was selected yesterday as the favorite to win the 2005-06 Mid-American Conference West Division title.
If that were to happen, it would mark the fourth time in 10 years under Joplin that the Rockets had won or shared the West title. It would almost surely translate into a winning record in league play for the eighth time.
And it would likely mean an eighth overall winning record for the coach.
Joplin has four starters returning. He has what might prove to be one of his finest, if not his best, freshman classes. He has a transfer player who could be dominant inside. He has a December schedule that does not include even one road game.
He has everything he could imagine wanting, except one thing. He does not have a contract beyond the end of this season.
And, to some degree, he knows why.
"Our only problem is that we haven't played our best basketball at the end of the year," Joplin said here yesterday as the MAC held its annual basketball preview. "I can't sugar-coat that. I know it."
That translates into no MAC tournament championships - not even a berth in the league title game - and no NCAA Tournament appearances thus far under Joplin.
That latter drought, in fact, has existed since the 1979-80 season, and there seems to be less and less interest in UT basketball with each passing year.
Last season, as the Rockets won a West Division co-championship, the largest crowd at 9,000-seat Savage Hall was 5,913 for the home opener against Nevada. There was only one other home game for which UT drew more than 5,000 fans, and the season average, based on announced attendance, was half of capacity.
With an extensive and expensive renovation to Savage Hall on the drawing board, it is logical to assume the school cannot afford continued fan apathy.
"Stan and I have had a variety of conversations and he is aware of our expectations as it pertains to this season," athletic director Mike O'Brien said. "Our goal - mine, Stan's, and our fans' - is to go to the postseason. It's to win our division, win the MAC title and play in the postseason."
O'Brien, who said Joplin's performance would be reviewed upon the conclusion of the coming season, would not comment on whether accomplishing that goal would assure Joplin of a new contract. Nor would he speculate on whether Joplin could survive if his team accomplished less.
But O'Brien did acknowledge that attendance would be important, saying it was the best way to gauge interest in the program.
"We hope to see improvement," O'Brien said. "Our season ticket base is very solid benchmarked against most MAC schools. But, candidly, many of our seats are empty. I'm as hopeful as Stan is that having more nonconference home games this season will generate some momentum and generate some excitement in the community."
Joplin said "the whole attendance dynamic has changed," and he blames a glut of televised college basketball games for that.
"It's not like we're walking the ball up the floor and shooting late in the shot clock," he said. "It's not like we're playing boring basketball. We've been near the top of the league year in and year out. A lot of teams in this league would like to be in our shoes from that standpoint."
Joplin acknowledges there is a perception in the community that the program is rife with academic problems and that the roster has included more than its share of bad actors. He claims both charges are untrue.
O'Brien agrees, especially with the academic progress made by Joplin's players.
"The NCAA has instituted an academic progress rate, called the APR, and its cut line is a 925 score," the athletic director said. "If you're below that you could possibly face sanctions. Our most recent score for men's basketball was 979 out of a possible 1,000. The graduation rate the last few years has been 100 per cent and the projection for upper classmen in the program is very positive."
Joplin sees the empty seats and he knows what is being said in the community.
"You'd think we weren't graduating any players, that we had a bunch of thugs who were always in trouble, that we had a boatload of players transferring out, that we weren't winning," he said. "In other words, you'd think our program is in shambles. That's the perception floating out there for some reason and it's not the case at all.
"What is the case, like I said, is that we haven't played our best ball at the end of seasons."
All Joplin, a one-time UT star who enters his 10th season as the Rockets head coach with a 153-112 overall record, can do is try to change that.
"I don't think there's any more pressure this year than what I always put on myself," he said. "I think my [contract] situation will take care of itself because I expect to have a great season.
"I guess we'll all see, in time, how it plays out."
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