The secret behind the best University of Toledo basketball season in 15 years was birthed around that same time in Milwaukee.
There a Marquette assistant in his mid 30s started eating store-bought pizza after every home game. Tod Kowalczyk still does it, sliding a pepperoni and sausage pie into the oven to fuel his late-night film sessions.
A self-described creature of habit, Kowalczyk recently granted The Blade a peek into the process powering a rollicking start to his fourth season with the program. Toledo, boasting a surplus of talent for the first time under Kowalczyk’s direction, strutted into Saturday’s home test against Sam Houston State with an 8-0 record, the first time the Rockets have been unbeaten this many games into a season since 1998-99.
“If you’re gonna do this, let’s do it right,” Kowalczyk warned.
That meant analyzing film at his Ottawa Hills home after a win Dec. 4 over Detroit until after midnight. Scheming for the next opponent, Robert Morris, got underway at 8 the next morning at Kowalczyk’s office at Savage Arena. Access included sitting in on a team meeting, reviewing an intricate system designed to grade defensive play, and attending a cheese-and-wine gathering of friends of the program.
After he finishes eating his pizza — always the Wisconsin-based brand Jack’s — Kowalczyk heads to his home office and fires up a copy of that night’s game. The Rockets, playing in front of a spirited crowd of 4,357, destroyed Detroit 91-75 leading by double digits the final 34 minutes.
It’s difficult to find fault with an effort as thorough as this one, but Kowalczyk manages to cover a sheet of paper in ink.
His sophomore center, Nathan Boothe, got into foul trouble, though to no fault of his own. Point guard Julius Brown overplayed the ball going for a steal, leaving Boothe in a compromising position for his second foul. Kowalczyk laments Boothe’s third foul as “a bad call,” and the coach makes it clear he was displeased with the officiating crew. One particular official, whom Kowalczyk believes is talented, seems to perform badly working Toledo games. Kowalczyk has not decided if he will submit calls from the game to the Mid-American Conference office, something he does only once or twice a season.
Because his teams have never been stalwarts defensively, and because his current team ranks fourth nationally in points scored, it’s natural to think Kowalczyk pays more attention to offense. The majority of his criticism, though, is directed at the other end of the floor. J.D. Weatherspoon, a power forward, commits what Kowalczyk calls “a scouting mistake” when he declines to help out on a drive by Detroit’s Juwan Howard, Jr., who torched the Rockets for 23 points two weeks earlier.
Brown, Toledo’s most valuable player, gives up a 3-pointer when he’s tardy getting back to his man after helping against a drive in the paint. Later Brown goes under a screen — Kowalczyk prefers he’d gone over — and gets beat for another 3.
Kowalczyk cringes at a blocking foul by Jordan Lauf, indicating the freshman scrapper should not expect calls to go his way beyond the 3-point line.
His analysis is not without praise. A play Kowalczyk installed the day before, a step-back 3-pointer for freshman Jonathan Williams, works to perfection. Kowalczyk said his team’s ball-screen defense improved from the earlier Detroit game, when the Rockets performed terribly before erasing a 19-point second-half deficit. He marvels at the tenacity of Lauf, who on one play late in the game fell down playing defense and without stopping slid on his knee pads in pursuit of his man.
“Fan favorite, isn’t he?” Kowalczyk said. “I knew he would be.”
At 12:10 a.m. the day is over, the seventh of 31 regular season pizza-and-film evenings coming to an end. Nights when his team plays poorly, a worried Kowalczyk will drift in and out of sleep. This is not one of those nights.
“I’ll sleep well,” he says.
‘The good stuff’
Kowalczyk begins the day at 8 a.m. highlighting notes he took the night before that he will address with his team.
He then looks over the scouting report for Robert Morris, Toledo’s opponent in two days. Kowalczyk notices something interesting. The Colonials are shooting 41 percent from the field, while their opponents are shooting 47 percent.
“That’s why they’re 3-6,” he says.
Robert Morris, which last year won the Northeast Conference regular-season title, has 11 players play 10 or more minutes.
“To me, that means the coach doesn’t know who to play yet,” Kowalczyk says.
The seven-page report produced by UT assistant Jason Kemp includes detailed statistics for each Robert Morris player along with offensive sets the Colonials showed in recent games.
Kemp’s findings show RMU’s two best players, Karvel Anderson and Lucky Jones, are attempting roughly half of their shots from 3.
Kowalczyk glances at his watch, sees it’s 8:30, and announces, “We’re right on time. Let’s go to work.”
He pulls up a game on his TV from the night before between Robert Morris and Youngstown State. (YSU won 84-76). Kowalczyk is impressed by Robert Morris’ fast-break, suggesting “transition defense will be the No. 1 key to this game.” He notices the Colonials are not switching on ball screens as much as they did two seasons ago in a 69-51 rout over Toledo in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
Kowalczyk starts to get annoyed at the film quality. The Colonials’ dark blue uniforms and white leg sleeves — worn by several Colonials — are making it difficult to identify players.
At 9:30, assistant coach Jason Kalsow enters the room with an important stack of papers.
“Here’s the good stuff,” Kowalczyk announces.
While Kowalczyk stayed up the night before breaking down the Detroit win, Kalsow was at his own home doing the same, only he was responsible for grading defensive play. Each Detroit point scored is assigned to a Toledo player, falling into categories such as mental discipline, transition, or poor position. Nine of Detroit’s 75 points were the result of well-executed offense rather than poor defense.
Kalsow, the only assistant still left from Kowalczyk’s four-win first season, circles numbers assigned to three players — Justin Drummond (three), Lauf (four), and Rian Pearson (five) — in blue ink. Those guys had good nights. Brown, the point guard, got red ink. His 13 was the only double-digit grade on the team.
Another analysis, this one grading box out opportunities, shows Drummond, Pearson, and Lauf all scoring 80 percent or higher. Kowalczyk calls Lauf — whose 85 percent led the team — an unprintable nickname that speaks to the freshman’s courage.
Kowalczyk is big on statistical analysis. He assigns athletic trainer Brian Jones to track plus-minus ratios in games, a number showing how the score fluctuates when a player is on the floor or on the bench. Kowalczyk believes plus-minus can be misleading on an individual game basis but “is dead accurate” over the course of a season in determining a player’s value. Brown and Boothe are scoring the highest.
Another stat monitors points scored per possession, by both Toledo and its opponents. Kowalczyk strives for an average of one point at both ends of the floor. Despite a shaky start, the Rockets were close to their goal on defense, surrendering 1.01 points. The offense, at 1.26 points per possession, is operating at a torrid pace. Later that morning, in a phone call with Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Brian Wardell, Kowalczyk jokes, “We should be playing with an ABA ball,” a nod to the iconic red, white, and blue sphere used in the high-scoring professional league of Kowalczyk’s youth.
At 10 a.m. the team gathers in the locker room. Kowalczyk announces, “Defensively, we took a step in the right direction.” He however is not pleased with his starting front court, Boothe and Weatherspoon, whose one rebound between them Kowalczyk calls “unacceptable.”
Players fetch iPads from their lockers to go over the Robert Morris scouting report. Kowalczyk says only four Colonials are dangerous, all of whom start. One of the reserve post players struggles on defense — “He couldn’t guard me,” Kowalczyk tells his team. The plan is to attack the player when he checks into the game.
Kowalczyk cautions his team against taking its opponent lightly. RMU will be desperate for a win after dropping four straight, all on the road.
“But we’re playing for a hell of a lot more than they are,” Kowalczyk says.
What he’s referring to becomes apparent later in the day.
Last man standing
Following the meeting the team conducts a brief walk through lasting five or 10 minutes. Then it’s time for lunch and more film study. After Kowalczyk finishes Robert Morris’ game at Youngstown State he’ll watch a Colonials home game to get a sense of how they perform in their gymnasium.
At 5:30 p.m. Kowalczyk is due downtown at Communica Inc., for a meet-and-greet with alumni and fans. A crowd of 50 or so socializes over snacks. Chatter stops so Kowalczyk can address the room. He thanks attendees for their support, provides an update on the team, and answers the question from earlier about the focus of his team’s rallying point.
“We want to be the last team standing,” Kowalczyk says.
Toledo is one of 17 unbeaten teams in the country.
The Rockets caught Robert Morris on a hot-shooting day (63 percent from the field) but kept the streak alive, making key defensive stops in an 80-77 win. Lauf drew a late charge to steal a possession, and Drummond made a wise decision to send the Colonials’ Anderson to the free-throw line before Anderson could unleash a 3 at the buzzer.
UT’s transition defense, which Kowalczyk predicted to be the biggest key to success, was fine. The Rockets surrendered 15 fast-break points. Anderson and Jones, the Colonials’ top offensive threats, erupted for 48 points on 19 of 23 shooting.
For all the work that went into creating the game plan, an improvisational sideline decision made the difference. Kowalczyk sat Boothe in crunch time and played Weatherspoon at center and Lauf at power forward. Kowalczyk believes his decision to have his posts switch defensive responsibilities on Robert Morris ball screens baffled the Colonials.
“So the game plan we scrapped and [we] did something different,” he said. “And that’s what won us the game.”
And the Rockets remained unbeaten, continuing their membership with a group that stood at 14 entering this weekend. Kowalczyk won’t discuss the Last Team Standing mantra, and he instructed his players to do the same.
“That’s a team thing, and we’re going to keep that within the team,” Kowalczyk said with a grin before getting ready to board the bus.