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Published: Wednesday, 2/29/2012

UT's goals still within reach

Rockets have chance at MAC West title, postseason awards

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The renovation is all but finished. Now it's time for decorations.

A handful of accolades and benchmarks are within reach for the University of Toledo men's basketball team as the final week of the regular season unfolds.

Chief among them is a Mid-American Conference West division championship, the program's stated goal in year two of a rebuilding project under coach Tod Kowalczyk. Other goodies in reach include hosting a first-round game in the MAC tournament, collecting one, two, or even three postseason awards, and heck, even winning 20 games.

It all starts Wednesday on the road against a Northern Illinois squad that refuses to roll over and play dead despite having won just three games. If the Rockets are victorious and then learn that Eastern Michigan lost at Western Michigan, they'll be giddy the entire bus ride home. That confluence of events would allow UT (15-14, 6-8) the chance to snatch a piece of the West title Saturday at Savage Arena against Eastern Michigan. Tip-off will be 2 p.m.

"We understand we have 80 minutes to go for a MAC West championship, and we have to take care of the first 40 starting Wednesday," Kowalczyk said.

It matters little to Kowalczyk and his players that a win Wednesday would pin down the seventh or eighth seed in the MAC tournament and assure them of hosting a first round game Monday.

"It's more about winning a MAC West championship," Kowalczyk said.

EMU, which has won at least a share of the West title, held a three-game lead over the Rockets when the second spin through division play began Feb. 14.

Since then, UT avenged three earlier losses and could go 4-for-4 with a reversal of a 41-38 setback to the Eagles. But NIU comes first.

"They've been through struggles, so they don't have anything to lose," Curtis Dennis said. "They're going to go out and give us everything they have."

Among the team's preseason goals was to win 20 games, Dennis said. To reach that marker, UT must close out the regular season with wins and prevail three more times in the MAC tournament. That path would take the Rockets all the way to the semifinal round.

Individual honors could come next week. Kowalczyk believes point guard Julius Brown should win MAC freshman of the year and sophomore guard Rian Pearson should get strong consideration for player of the year. Moreover, Kowalczyk has built a case for coach of the year which would be fortified by a division title.

Brown, the West player of the week the past two weeks, is up against Miami's Brian Sullivan, the MAC's leading 3-pointer shooter in conference play; Central Michigan's Austin McBroom (11.3 points in MAC); and Northern Illinois' Abdel Nader (11.1 points). Brown (10.7 points, 4.7 assists) leads the candidates in wins and recently dropped 29 points in a win over McBroom's Chippewas.

The chorus for Pearson as POY has softened over the past couple of weeks with his production dipping. Still, at 16.9 points per game in MAC contests, he's averaging one more point than anyone else. At 6-foot-4, he's the second-leading rebounder (8.1).

In a vote that could go many ways, Pearson faces competition from Kent State's Justin Greene, the reigning MAC player of the year; Buffalo's duo of Mitchell Watt and Javon McCrea; Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper; and Miami forward Julian Mavunga.

Kowalczyk's case for coach of the year is hurt by his team's average record but strengthened by a turnaround of at least 11 wins.

To boot, he has just eight scholarship players. His main competition likely is Akron's Keith Dambrot, Ohio's John Groce, Buffalo's Reggie Witherspoon, and Eastern Michigan's Rob Murphy.

Although hanging banners is the ultimate goal, Kowalczyk said there's a place for individual achievements.

"It's important to me because I think it's important to the players," he said. "I'd be naive to think that it's not. But I don't put a whole lot of thought into it."

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.



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