Ever have one of those trips where everything seems to go wrong and you just can't wait to get home and sleep in your own bed?
Tod Kowalczyk and the University of Toledo men's basketball team returned this week from one of those harrowing travel experiences.
During their seven-day road trip down south, the Rockets endured two blowout losses, three players were levied one-game suspensions, and Kowalczyk stripped one of them of his role as team captain.
J.T. Thomas, the first freshman captain in Kowalczyk's nine seasons as a head coach, was one of three players who missed curfew one night during the trip and was suspended for the Rockets' 83-41 loss at Alabama on Monday. Sophomore guard Malcolm Griffin and freshman forward Reese Holliday were also suspended for the Alabama game.
“It was extremely disappointing,” Kowalczyk said Thursday. “We had some guys who I thought just disrespected the team and were very selfish with their acts. But we've handled it and we're going to learn from it. Certainly the message has been received and I'd like to think the message will be learned.”
Kowalczyk declined to provide any further details on the circumstances that led to disciplinary measures being levied against the trio, but said he regretted being on the road for so long.
“It was a lot cheaper for us to stay out for the whole week” instead of flying back to Toledo after the 64-42 loss to UNC Wilmington on Dec. 30, Kowalczyk said, “but looking back on it, it was just too long of a trip. We didn't play very well and anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.”
Kowalczyk said the team's work ethic in practice also suffered during the road trip. The Rockets utilized Alabama's facilities for two practices leading up to Monday's game, but because they were away from campus, they were without their three heralded transfers — Dominique Buckley, Rian Pearson, and Matt Smith — who are not allowed to travel with the team while sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
“When you don't have Matt, Dominique, and Rian at practice, that affects our energy and enthusiasm and the quality of practices that we have,” Kowalczyk said. “But that's the hand we're dealt this year, and we're doing the best we can.”
Holliday, Griffin, and Thomas are expected back in the lineup for Saturday's Mid-American Conference opener against Eastern Michigan at Savage Arena. But before that, they had to apologize to their teammates during a team meeting earlier this week.
“We broke a rule and had to serve the consequences,” Thomas said. “You live and learn, so I've learned from it and you just keep going. I want to make this right and get back on track for conference play.”
Although he's no longer a team captain, Thomas said his role as a leader isn't diminished in his eyes.
“Nothing changes. Nothing changes at all,” Thomas said. “I'm still going to be vocal and play hard and talk to everybody about their accountability. Nothing's changed.”
Kowalczyk had praised Thomas for his leadership abilities, calling him “the best freshman leader I've seen in 22 years of coaching,” but said Thursday if he had to do it again, he wouldn't have put Thomas in such a prominent position within the program.
“Coaches are no different than everybody else,” he said. “We make mistakes, and I made a mistake naming a freshman a captain.”
Thomas' teammates shared in Kowalczyk's frustrations, but said they're ready to move forward and won't hold it against him or the other two disciplined players.
“We were angry at what they did,” said junior walk-on Jay Shunnar, who logged 38 minutes against Alabama because the Rockets had just four scholarship players available, “but we're more excited for watching them bounce back than dwelling on what they did before. We're excited to see what they do when adversity hits. They're all good guys, and I definitely expect big things from them.”
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