The only time Rian Pearson stepped foot inside Allen Fieldhouse he was in high school at an AAU basketball tournament. The venerable James Naismith Court was split into multiple sections that day to accommodate several games.
Toledo at No. 16 Kansas
Time: 8 p.m.
Records: UT is 12-0; KU is 8-3
TV: ESPN3 (online)
Series: KU leads 1-0
Notes: These teams have played once before, with Kansas claiming a 68-58 decision on Dec. 9, 2006, in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena. ... UT entered Sunday as one of eight unbeaten teams in the country. ... KU has not played since beating Georgetown 86-64 on Dec. 21. ... All three Jayhawks losses — to Villanova, Colorado, and Florida — came away from Allen Fieldhouse. ... Freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins leads Kansas in scoring with 15.5 points. A 6-8 guard, Wiggins was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. ... 6-8 forward Perry Ellis, Kansas’ leading returner in scoring and rebounding, averages 13.3 points and 6.3 boards. Ellis, who injured his neck in the Georgetown game, is expected to play.
Toledo at Evansville
Time: 3 p.m.
Records: UT is 5-5; UE is 4-6
Series: UT leads 4-1
Notes: This is UT’s final nonconference game before it begins MAC play on Saturday at defending tournament champion Central Michigan. ... Evansville, the former school of Rockets coach Tricia Cullop, has lost three of four including a 50-49 setback Dec. 21 at Saint Louis. ... EU, which is 3-1, features four starters contributing at least 11.0 points led by Sara Dickey’s 19.6. ... UT is coming off an 87-75 home loss to Dayton on Dec. 22. ... These teams met last year with UT pulling out a 60-50 decision in the Toledo Invite. ... UT’s Stephanie Recker (back) is expected to miss her fifth game.
In other words, Pearson was robbed of fully experiencing one of the sacred venues in all of sport, one located about 50 minutes west of his hometown, and one which he cared little to visit as a fan of Kansas rival Missouri. He’ll get a second chance today when Pearson, of Raytown, Mo., leads undefeated Toledo into unfamiliar territory — a game with national importance.
When the ball flies into the air at 8 p.m., it will be fought over by a team expected to contend for a national championship and a team simply contending for votes in the Top 25. The game — Toledo’s last before it begins Mid-American Conference play — can be viewed online at ESPN3.
Despite starting 12-0 — a record that as of Sunday was one of only eight in the country unblemished — Toledo is a heavy underdog. Kansas, ranked No. 16, has won 66 straight games against nonconference opponents at Allen Fieldhouse, a run that began early in the 2006-07 season.
Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk, who could only have dreamed his team would still be unbeaten on Dec. 30, identified this game as a must-have on his team’s schedule. An admirer of Kansas’ almost unmatched tradition — winners of 11 of the last 12 Big 12 regular-season titles — Kowalczyk hopes exposing his team to excellence will foster a championship culture at Toledo.
“I want our program to be at a level where we can compete every year for a championship,” he said. “Going to play against people who do is always a good learning experience.”
More than anything, though, Kowalczyk wanted this game for Pearson, one of two fifth-year seniors on the team along with Texan Matt Smith. Many of Pearson’s family members and friends will file into the 16,300-seat gymnasium to support the former all-state selection at Raytown South. Included in the bunch is his young daughter, who lives with her mother in the area.
“Rian Pearson deserves to go back home and play,” Kowalczyk said Saturday following Toledo’s 19-point home win over Coppin State. “He hasn’t had the chance to go back to that area. A lot of his family and friends have never seen him in college basketball.”
Kowalczyk and Pearson have had their share of squabbles — arguments at practice became common last year — but their relationship is also highlighted with warm moments, like the one coming today. Kowalczyk, who tries to schedule road games near the hometown of deserving seniors, concedes that plan “doesn’t always work out that way.”
Pearson, twice an All-MAC pick, is leading Toledo in scoring for the third season in a row, averaging 16.6 points. He already blasted his previous career high of eight 3-pointers, knocking down 12 of 26 for a 46 percent success rate that ranks highest on the team.
Recognized on the court for his mercurial behavior in addition to his crafty left hand, Pearson said the uniqueness of today comes with possible pitfalls.
“I need to keep my emotions to a minimum and come in with the mindset we can win,” he said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.