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The men most responsible for the reawakening of the University of Toledo men’s basketball program seem to embrace confrontation.
Rian Pearson, the tempestuous junior forward, is known by referees and opposing players in the Mid-American Conference to have an explosive personality. His coach, Tod Kowalczyk, is wired the same way. He has barked at many of those same men in black and white striped tops, and even the league commissioner this week could not duck from the barrel of Kowalczyk’s fury.
Thus, it perhaps was unavoidable when the two linked up four years ago their relationship would produce its own conflicts. Quarrels at practice — there have been several — are typically followed by Kowalczyk ordering Pearson to sprint the length of the court and back. Twice this season Pearson sat the bench after running afoul of his coach.
Such a combustion is less messy than it might appear from the outside. Kowalczyk has relied on Pearson to help the program climb from the bottom of the league standings. Pearson has relied on Kowalczyk to help him grow up. Today, in Toledo’s final game of a season cut short by a postseason ban, the city will rely on both of them to raise a banner.
"It’s a father-son type relationship," Kowalczyk said this week. "We’re going to have arguments. We just are. I’m a competitive guy. He’s a competitive guy."
A victory on the road against Eastern Michigan — an opponent Pearson brutalized a month ago in a home win — will net the Rockets the West division title. Well, kind of. The MAC, citing a league policy to disqualify teams ineligible from the postseason of winning regular season titles, will not formally recognize Toledo as champions. Western Michigan, which is tied with the Rockets atop the division with a 9-6 league record, technically has secured the title. Kowalczyk after reading a statement this week issued by MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher on the league’s stance, gave an acerbic response: "I couldn’t care less what he says."
Sounds like something he might say after a clash with Pearson.
Pearson, who believes his relationship with his coach "is where it needs to be," has flourished in his four years under Kowalczyk. His grade-point average hovers around 3.0, a significant increase from Pearson’s freshman year when he played under Kowalczyk at Green Bay. Although some evidence suggests otherwise, Kowalczyk insists Pearson has matured, a transformation the coach attributes to Pearson becoming a father three years ago.
"I would never recommend a player being a parent during their college years," Kowalczyk said, "but in his case I think it’s been the greatest thing for him. Every year he’s gotten more mature. I think he’s going to leave after next year a mature man. That’s not the way he was five years ago."
Kowalczyk said his stripping Pearson of his captain status after last season should not be viewed as a demotion. Pearson felt uncomfortable in a leadership role.
"We need vocal leaders on the floor and I’m not good at that job," he said.
On the hardwood, the Raytown, Mo. native has developed into one of the finest talents in the league. The MAC scoring champion a year ago, Pearson (17.9 ppg) will try to outduel Buffalo’s Javon McCrea (17.9) and Central Michigan’s Kyle Randall (17.8) on the final day of the season. Challenges like this motivate Pearson. He scored 27 points and nine rebounds in a win this year at Kent State, getting the upper hand in an individual match up against Chris Evans that featured the league’s top two scorers. Slighted last season by not receiving first-team MAC honors, Pearson spent the offseason tweaking his stroke at the free-throw line and upped his makes six points to 74 percent. He body language is better too. Rare were the times this season Pearson berated or stared angrily at a referee who did not blow his whistle. He cut his technical fouls in half, down from four last year to two.
"He’s one of the best workers I’ve been around," Kowalczyk said. "There’s a difference between playing hard and working at your craft. He does both. He plays extremely hard and competes at a higher level than maybe anybody I’ve coached."
One exception: Kowalczyk thought Pearson played tentatively Jan. 23 in the first half against Akron, and he told him so. Pearson, who took exception, was benched for the first six minutes of the second half. Two weeks later Pearson overslept and missed the team’s gathering for breakfast. He came off the bench that night against Eastern Michigan and produced a monster stat line — 29 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Kowalczyk, following his team’s 60-52 win, said he loves Pearson but he needs to "grow up."
"Rian’s on a 24-hour delay," Kowalczyk said this week. "When he screws up he admits his mistakes, but it might take him a day to admit it to himself. That’s fine."
In 24 more hours Pearson will be entering his senior season, perhaps as a MAC West champion. It is all part of a maturing process, for both he and the team.
"It would mean a lot to the program, starting from the bottom and trying to work our way to the top," Pearson said. "It wasn’t easy."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.