KENT, Ohio - The University of Toledo's last three visits to the M.A.C. Center have left Stan Joplin bewildered.
Losing road games to Kent State, which has won at least 20 games the last eight seasons, is not the issue. It's that the Rockets haven't been able to compete.
"The games haven't even been close, it's been over the first five to seven minutes," Joplin said. "It's been mind-boggling. They come out with so much more energy, so much more enthusiasm. It's really been a hard place for us to even be in the ball game for some reason."
Tonight at 7 UT will try to change that, in a rematch of last year's Mid-American Conference championship game. The Golden Flashes are playing their best basketball of the year, having won five games in a row. They've held their last three opponents under 50 points.
The Rockets traveled to Kent last season and were down 15 points by halftime. In trips to Kent in 2002 and 2004, the Rockets lost by 27 and 36 points.
This season KSU is 14-8 and in second place in the MAC East with a 7-2 record. The Flashes are right behind the Rockets in steals per contest, averaging nearly nine.
"They're pretty athletic, and they're pretty quick, and they're long," Joplin said. "They make you play at a faster pace. They get after you. It's going to be a tough game for us, obviously."
Like last year, the Flashes are again led by a pair of senior guards. Omni Smith leads KSU with 14.1 points a game, and Armon Gates adds 10.1.
Despite seeing a similar team every day in practice, Kent coach Jim Christian said he was impressed with Toledo's speed and quick hands when watching the Rockets (12-9, 8-1) on film. UT hasn't changed much from the team Kent beat by five in the 2006 title game, Christian said, but there are a few notable differences.
"Same players, but they're a more experienced, hungrier, and more confident basketball team," Christian said. "Which happens when you have guys who have played together for so long. There's a different swagger."
It's not just that the Rockets get turnovers, it's how they use them, Christian said.
"They're the best team in the league in finishing plays," Christian said.
"You get them in the open floor, they finish better than anybody I've seen this season."
Heading into games against the defending Mid-American Conference champions and then MAC East leader Akron on Saturday, Joplin said he would probably be happy with a split. Should the Rockets win their games against Kent State and Akron in the coming days, it would be a symbolic stand, no doubt.
But despite the Rockets' current three-game lead in the MAC West, Joplin believes the division will not be decided until the final week.
"I still think teams are going to continue to beat up on everyone," Joplin said.
OLD DOMINION TIME SET: ESPN announced that UT's BracketBusters matchup against Old Dominion on Feb. 17 will start at 6 p.m. at Savage Hall and will be broadcast on the Internet on ESPN 360.
VALENCIA HONORED: Senior forward Florentino Valencia was named the MAC West player of the week by the league office yesterday. Valencia averaged 16 points and seven rebounds and shot 60 percent from the floor in the Rockets' two games last week. It's the sixth time this year a UT player has won the award.
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