Rockets clear favorites to tame West

Depth has Toledo thinking of title; Bowling Green picked last in East

University of Toledo basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk, right, talks to his team during a recent practice. Kowalczyk says this is the deepest team he has had in 12 years of coaching.
University of Toledo basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk, right, talks to his team during a recent practice. Kowalczyk says this is the deepest team he has had in 12 years of coaching.

University of Toledo basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk held court at his team’s media day Tuesday and gushed about the preseason he’s having.

His best player, an all-conference guard, showed up from the summer as one of the two most improved members of the team.

His worst player, whomever that might be, is an upgrade from the end-of-the-bench guys in past years.

Every player in between makes up the deepest squad Kowalczyk says he’s led in his 12 seasons as a head coach.

It was a foregone conclusion the Rockets would be favored to win the West division when the Mid-American Conference released its preseason poll Tuesday morning. And they were, collecting 24 of 25 first-place votes. Questions existed if the Rockets would earn status as projected tournament champion. That they will not, as defending champion Akron picked up 14 votes to UT’s seven. Buffalo (one vote) was also recognized.

Filling in behind Toledo in the West are Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan (one first-place vote), Ball State, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois.

“Our players earned those expectations, and we’re proud of those expectations,” Kowalczyk said, adding former college basketball coach Fran Fraschilla recently told the Rockets, “pressure’s a privilege.”

Bowling Green State University is picked to finish last in the six-team East behind — in order — Akron, Buffalo, Ohio, Kent State, and Miami. BG, which graduated its top two scorers from a 13-win team, has never finished last in the division in six seasons under coach Louis Orr.

“We have a great group of guys,” Orr said. “They’ve worked extremely hard, they are hungry and close-knit. This is an opportunity for guys to assume new roles and surprise some people. We will do it collectively.”

Kowalczyk said point guard Julius Brown, a third-team All-MAC selection last season, has made the greatest strides on the team along with center Nathan Boothe.

Brown, now in his third year starting, and two-time All-MAC performer Rian Pearson, represent Toledo on the West preseason team that includes Ball State’s Majok Majok, Eastern Michigan’s Glenn Bryant, and Western Michigan’s Shayne Whittington.

The East squad consists of Buffalo’s Javon McCrea and Will Regan, Akron’s Quincy Diggs and Demetrius Treadwell, and Miami’s Will Felder.

This is the season Toledo has been building toward since Kowalczyk took over four years ago. Year One involved cleaning up from the Gene Cross era. Year Two was undermined by scholarship reductions. Last season was anchored by a postseason ban, although the Rockets made good on preseason expectations of winning the West. They tied Western Michigan with a 10-6 league mark, but the MAC did not recognize Toledo as co-champions because of the postseason ban.

“It’s great to know we get to have a postseason this year,” said Pearson, who ranked third in the MAC last year with 17.9 points. “We have a great team and a lot of depth. We’re looking to go all the way this year.”

This Sunday, at a home exhibition against Hillsdale, Toledo will unveil a roster featuring four returning starters, two impact transfers, and three freshmen that have teased Rocket fans since the day they committed in June, 2012. Pearson called one of the newcomers, Napoleon graduate Jordan Lauf, “a beast.” Kowalczyk added Lauf “is somebody who I would categorize as unbelievably tough mentally and physically.”

In all, Kowalczyk has 11 available scholarship players, all of whom he’s comfortable playing. Practices are more competitive than in past seasons when Kowalczyk resorted to plugging in assistant coach Jason Kalsow in scrimmage settings just to have a complete five-on-five.

“We have better guys on the team now and more talent than we did before,” Brown said. “Practice is competitive each and every day. I look at that as a good thing.”

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