Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Tournament gives Rockets fresh start

It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but the truth of the matter is that the University of Toledo men's basketball team is four victories away from the NCAA tournament.

For a team that has won just four games all year and just one in Mid-American Conference play, the task of stringing together four wins in seven days to win the MAC tournament and snag the league's automatic bid to the Big Dance seems to be insurmountable for the Rockets.

But there's always room for hope as UT opens at Buffalo today at 2 p.m.

"To think that we're four games away from the NCAA tournament, it gives you pause and makes you think, 'OK, let's try to put a run together,'•" UT coach Gene Cross said. "It would be the unlikeliest of stories, because of what your record is and what everybody else says about you, but you know what? Who's to say we can't go and prove somebody wrong or show them we've developed and grown up into a much better team?"

The Rockets (4-27, 1-15 MAC), who last made it to the NCAA tournament in 1980, have at least shown the ability to contend for victories as of late.

In a 60-58 loss at Northern Illinois in the regular-season finale Thursday, UT led by as many as seven points with 5:44 to play before letting a four-point advantage slip away in the final two minutes.

Against Ball State last weekend, the Rockets did manage to hang on for a 45-42 win to snap a school-record 19-game losing streak.

"We've come a long way," UT junior forward and co-captain Justin Anyijong said. "We've continued to work hard and haven't given up."

The Rockets have yet to win a true road game in Cross' first two seasons at the helm - a span of 30 games - so the challenge will be obvious today against the Bulls (17-11, 9-7).

UT has played markedly better away from Savage Arena in the second half of the season, though.

The Rockets' average margin of defeat in their first 10 road games was 19.1. Since then, it is 12.8.

The turning point in those figures was a 55-47 loss at Miami on Feb. 10.

"Going there and playing like we did, it gave us the sense that we can play on the road and play tough opponents and put ourselves in a position to win," Cross said. "And I think that's all you want, is to go in with the confidence that you can do it."

At this time of the year, when everybody is starting from scratch and records are thrown out the window, that confidence and optimism abounds.

"I'm excited for the fresh start," UT freshman guard and co-captain Jake Barnett said. "The playing field is even again, and because it's win or go home, it adds an element of urgency. It'll be fun to just go out and leave it all out there."

Added Anyijong: "This is another opportunity for us to show everybody that we are a better team than we have shown in the past."

Because of the conference's scheduling, UT didn't find out which team it would be playing in the opening round of the MAC tournament until late Friday night after Kent State's win over Akron, which bumped Buffalo to the No. 5 seed.

Therefore, the Rockets' preparations were focused more on what they themselves needed to do well to get a victory versus gameplanning against a particular opponent, which could end up working in UT's favor.

"Obviously we worry about them a little bit," Barnett said. "But we have to get ourselves together and figure what we're going to do to dictate the game. That's the most important thing we can do right now."

Contact Zach Silka at:

or 419-724-6084.

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