In a possible prelude to what could be the eventual matchup in the championship game of the upcoming Mid-American Conference tournament, two of the league's leading contenders square off tonight at Savage Hall.
MAC West Division leader Toledo (8-2) plays host to East Division front-runner Akron (9-1). The Rockets, who defeated Akron 77-69 in the semifinal round of last year's conference tournament, need a win to pull into a tie for first place in the MAC standings.
Toledo coach Stan Joplin remembers that his team needed a furious comeback to erase a 13-point deficit in the second half and had to outscore Akron 30-10 in the final 13 minutes of that game to get the win. With most of Akron's lineup a year more seasoned, Joplin does not expect to have the opportunity to make such a dramatic move this time around.
"Akron is a veteran team that has good senior leadership," Joplin said. "They don't make very many mistakes either, so we're going to have to play smart basketball and stick to our defensive principles."
The Zips come in riding a huge wave of momentum after winning their past nine in a row.
Akron has also had its way with the MAC West, winning its last 18 straight regular-season games against teams from the West.
The Zips have depth and balance, with seven players scoring seven or more points per game.
Senior forward Romeo Travis, a high school teammate of NBA star LeBron James at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, leads Akron in scoring with 13.9 points, and is one of Joplin's primary concerns.
"Romeo Travis is one of the best players in the conference in the post and we'll have to do our best to contain him," Joplin said. "But they have so many different options that they can hurt you with offensively."
Toledo senior captain Justin Ingram, who is sixth in the MAC in scoring at 15.3 points, said the winner of tonight's game will be in good position to claim the top seed in the conference tournament. The champion moves on to represent the MAC in the NCAA tournament. He said the Rockets need to right the ship after dropping a 64-60 game at Kent State this past week.
"It's going to be an important game for both teams, because we both want to be the No. 1 seed in the MAC," Ingram said. "We need to rebound from our loss at Kent State on Tuesday and we also need to protect our home court."
Joplin agreed that the MAC tournament-seeding implications involved tonight make a big game even bigger.
"It's an important game for both teams because the No. 1 seed in the MAC tournament could be at stake," Joplin said. "We need to keep protecting our home court, and if we do that, we should be in good shape to earn a bye for the MAC tournament."
The Akron game is Toledo's final meeting with a MAC East team, and Ingram said it is a critical opportunity for the Rockets to show they can play with the best from the East Division. Toledo's only MAC losses have come against East Division competition, Kent State and Ohio.
"A lot of people have been saying the East Division has all the top teams this season," Ingram said.
"After we lost our games at Kent State and Ohio, we want to show we're one of the best teams in the MAC too, and a win over Akron would do that. It's a game that we've been looking forward to, and I'm sure Akron is too."
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