The Blade/Lori King
It is far too soon, just three games into the season, to suggest the University of Toledo men’s basketball team has arrived at a crossroads.
That being said, a little success would be therapeutic from a psychological standpoint.
Coach Tod Kowalczyk admitted this week to concerns about his team’s confidence in the wake of a clumsy start to an unforgiving early slate, calling a stretch of eight of nine games away from home "a delicate part of our schedule."
Toledo (0-3) hopes to achieve a measure of catharsis this week in Fort Myers, Fla., where it will face Samford today and either Florida Gulf Coast or Alcorn State on Thursday.
In a sense, the Rockets’ success, or lack of it, in November and December will be irrelevant come March because the program is shuttered from postseason play. That does not mean these games are of no importance, as the emotional toll inflicted from a series of setbacks could threaten to unhinge the season.
Kowalczyk wants his team, picked to win the Mid-American Conference West division, feeling self-assured heading into league play, and that will come only if they start experiencing some victories.
"It’s a resilient group, so I need to make sure we maintain that it’s a long season and we’re building for conference play," Kowalczyk said. "It’s not that non-conference doesn’t mean anything this year, but it’s much more relevant for us to prepare for our league schedule because of our situation."
That situation, being barred from the postseason, has hurt the team in various ways. It is not unreasonable to suggest Toledo would have won a game or two had prolific bench scorer Curtis Dennis not exercised a loophole afforded to him by the NCAA to transfer to another Division I school without penalty.
Without Dennis, who is off to a slow start at Iona, Toledo’s reserves are scoring just 10 points per game, less than Dennis averaged himself last year. His absence was particularly evident in losses to Loyola (62-50) and to Northern Iowa (84-81 in overtime).
Kowalczyk said poor conditioning, brought on perhaps by his team being forced to start practice 10 days late, was evident in the loss to Loyola on Nov. 9.
"We don’t want to use that as an excuse for why we’re 0-3," guard Dominique Buckley said.
The NCAA sanctions also crimped Toledo’s hopes of piecing together a quality non-conference schedule by stripping the program of four home games. The Rockets won’t play in front of a Savage Arena crowd until next Wednesday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — Toledo’s sixth game — and not again until 31 days later against Illinois-Chicago.
Spending the first seven days of the season on a bus is not ideal, nor is playing back-to-back road games in early December at Cleveland State and Detroit.
"I would never in a normal situation do something like this, but I didn’t want to give up home games for next year," Kowalczyk said. "We could have chosen to start one of those here, but why? In our situation this year, why do that? It’s about our conference schedule and what we’re playing for next year."
The challenge is to accumulate as many non-conference wins as possible and to enter MAC play in positive spirit. The good news is Kowalczyk is happy with the way his team competed the last three halves, beginning with the final 20 minutes of a 82-56 loss at Minnesota. He believes the Rockets outplayed Northern Iowa, which received votes in the latest Associated Press poll, but squandered the win late by making poor decisions.
"We’re going to get on a good run and start getting some wins," point guard Julius Brown said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.