The last time Tod Kowalczyk and Curtis Dennis spoke was in June, when the basketball coach visited Dennis at his home in New York to convince the shooting guard to return for his senior year at the University of Toledo.
"Coach," Dennis said, giving him a hug. "Don’t worry, I’m coming back."
If only that declaration had been true, neither man would now be suffering. Within a week Dennis changed his mind and exercised a NCAA loophole afforded to seniors on teams ineligible for the postseason and transferred 10 minutes from his home in the Bronx to Iona. No one — not Dennis, not Iona, and certainly not Toledo — has come away a winner in a decision Dennis admits adversely impacted a career that had taken flight in his only season with the Rockets.
"Somedays I wish I was there," Dennis said this week in a phone interview. "I miss Toledo. Toledo’s always going to be my home because that’s where I felt was the breakout of my college career."
Dennis, an honorable mention All-Mid-American Conference selection, is averaging about nine fewer points per game than he did a year ago when he came off the bench and contributed 12.7 ppg, second most on the team. His playing time has decreased from 27 minutes to 13. During a recent nine-game stretch he averaged just six minutes, logging three or fewer minutes on five occasions.
Iona, at 14-8 and 8-3 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, is eying 20 wins for the fourth straight season as well as a repeat appearance in the NCAA tournament — something Dennis could not have done had he stayed at Toledo, which is barred from the postseason this year for poor Academic Progress Rate scores.
Toledo’s bench sans Dennis consists of three full-time players, two of whom average one point or less. Before Wednesday, when reserves Reese Holliday, Josh Lemons, and Richard Wonnell fueled a second-half surge in a win at Ball State, the Rockets (8-10, 4-3 Mid-American Conference) had lived and died by the production of their starting five. Today Toledo will visit Northern Illinois, a team Dennis diced for 18 points a year ago in a route at Savage Arena.
"It has drastically affected our program," Kowalczyk said. "Drastically. It has taken away our versatility. It has taken away our depth. It has taken away our scoring ability. I certainly don’t want to blame Curtis Dennis for our situation, because it’s not his fault, but with Curtis Dennis we’re a different team. We are completely a different team."
Asked why he transferred, Dennis, who previously cited the illness of a relative, said, "It was just a feeling. I can’t even tell you what it was."
Dennis said he is happy at Iona — "I’m a happy person. I’m not happy with my production." — and that he does not regret his decision — "If you live in regret it holds you back." He appreciates that his coaches have not given up on his development — evidenced by his logging 20 or minutes in two of Iona’s last three games — something he accuses the New Mexico staff of doing in his first two college seasons.
"Early in the season his effort was a little too much up-and-down," Iona coach Tim Cluess said.
Torn cartilage in his knee has contributed to Dennis’ struggles but is viewed as a red herring.
"I was producing at Toledo," said Dennis, Iona’s eighth leading scorer. "Different offense. Different strategy. [Kowalczyk] and I hit it off really, really well. Not to say I haven’t with this coach. I think this coach is still trying to figure out how to coach me."
Dennis, who said he maintains contact with the Rockets’ Rian Pearson and Reese Holliday, added: "I have the utmost confidence in myself. I’m not producing. That’s what I’m very, very upset about. But there’s a lot more basketball games, and I’m going to turn it around."
On Thursday, two days after the interview, Dennis scored 11 points in a loss at Niagara. It was the third time this year he scored in double figures.
Kowalczyk’s bitterness from the divorce has simmered but not dissipated. He likes Dennis, a personable guy, but wishes the player would have stayed firm in his decision to stay. By Dennis waiting until June to transfer, the market of available recruits for the coaching staff to pursue was thin. Prospective transfer Kyle Randall, who left UNC Greensboro and is averaging 16.7 points at Central Michigan, was no longer an option.
Dennis informed a Rockets assistant of his decision to transfer via text message, "and that’s why I say he didn’t handle it the right way," Kowalczyk said. Kowalczyk is displeased with the NCAA for "allowing programs to actively recruit and poach players" from teams banned from the postseason, saying it "makes zero sense to me."
Asked what he will say to Dennis if they are to speak again, Kowalczyk responded, "I’m sorry it didn’t work out."
"I think he is a good person that got zero guidance from the people he should have gotten guidance from," Kowalczyk said. "I feel bad for him."
Contact Ryan Autullo at:
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