Toledo guard J.D. Weatherspoon, who finished with seven points, defends against Coppin State’s Dallas Gary in Saturday’s game at Savage Arena. The Rockets (12-0) play Monday at No. 16 Kansas.
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It would have made sense, and even been forgivable, if the collective minds of the University of Toledo men’s basketball team drifted from Savage Arena.
Saturday’s meeting with Coppin State figured to elicit a high level of lethargy, sandwiched between Christmas festivities and a road test two days down the road against one of the nation’s blue blood programs.
That theme, as practical as it appeared, never came close to materializing. Focused and energized, Toledo grabbed its largest halftime lead of its undefeated season and delivered an early knockout blow in an 85-66 romp.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos from the game.
In a season that which they’ve exceeded expectations — not even the most optimistic of observers foresaw a 12-0 start — the Rockets will try now to create the biggest disruption to their expected trajectory.
The 16th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks are next as Allen Fieldhouse awaits Toledo. The Rockets will strut into Lawrence on Monday as one of six to eight teams in the nation yet to suffer a defeat.
“If there’s a negative to going 12-0, don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We’re going to get their best shot, but you know what, I think they’re going to get our best shot, too.”
Coppin State knows what that feels like. Instead of pondering the upcoming challenge presented by Kansas ballyhooed freshman Andrew Wiggins, or falling victim to holiday distractions, Kowalczyk’s team was engaged fully, much like they were after Thanksgiving in a 16-point win over Detroit.
UT’s Jordan Lauf pulls in a rebound against Coppin State’s Andre Armstrong. Lauf led the Rockets with 10 rebounds.
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Rian Pearson, who hails from the outskirts of Jayhawks territory, ensured there would be no slippage, draining two early 3-pointers to build an eight-point lead. Pearson, who entered his senior year never making more than eight 3s in a season, already has 12, including at least one in five of six games. Pearson, who grew up in Raytown, Mo. backing Kansas rival Missouri, posted 22 points and three assists on 50 percent shooting (8 of 16).
Kowalczyk scheduled the Kansas game in part so Pearson could play in front of family and friends.
“I want to go in there with the mindset we can beat them,” said Pearson, who upped his scoring average to a team-best 16.6 points.
Toledo, which has trailed at halftime five times, entered the break in control, leading by a season-high 20 points — 44-24.
The win moved the Rockets into a tie with Toledo’s 1940-41 team for the second best start in program history. The Bob Nichols-coached 1966-67 squad won 14 in a row, not losing until a Feb. 4 road game at Marshall.
To match the feat, Toledo must win road games at Kansas, and in the Jan. 8 Mid-American Conference opener at Western Michigan.
Toledo has not lost since March 2 to Ball State, a run that includes two wins to close last year’s regular season, three exhibition wins in Greece, and an exhibition win over Hillsdale.
“We believe we can play with anyone in the nation,” point guard Julius Brown said. “We’re going to go in with the mindset we can win, which I believe all of my teammates believe we can.”
Brown had 18 points and seven assists, unchained from a shooting slump in which he made just 5 of 29 field goal attempts and scored 18 points over the three prior games. Like Pearson, Justin Drummond (13 points) and Matt Smith (10 points), Brown hit two 3s.
Behind 10 rebounds by Jordan Lauf and nine by J.D. Weatherspoon, Toledo dominated the glass 47 to 25. Its three-game rebounding margin is a staggering plus-52.