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The new year brings reason to start counting.
At midnight the streak grew to 34 — as in calendar years since the University of Toledo qualified for and appeared in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
If the first 13 games to this season are to foretell future results, 2014 could bring with it the crashing of the streak, descending on the Mid-American Conference like a ball dropping in Times Square.
A competitive 93-83 loss Monday at Kansas did not prove Toledo’s worth as a MAC title contender — that much was already evident — but rather continued to validate the groundswell of respect heaped on a program whose long-awaited rebirth enters the new year in pristine condition.
Conference play opens Jan. 8, with Toledo forging into its first of 18 MAC tests on the road at Western Michigan. At 12-1 overall, and their only loss coming amid a fine effort in the most challenging of stages, the Rockets find themselves in the driver’s seat to go dancing in March for the first time since 1980.
If voters who predicted the Rockets to finish second in the MAC to Akron were asked for their revised opinion, Toledo would almost surely be recast as the favorite to win the tournament and attain the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Defending champion Akron is struggling to find consistency, the reason being shaky play at point guard. Kent State has gotten fat on home wins, never leaving home throughout a six-game win streak that ate up the second half of November. Ohio, Eastern Michigan, and Buffalo bring various challenges but each may be a rung behind a Toledo squad whose defense is making incremental gains to match its blistering offense.
The downfall in Monday’s loss was one that rendered Toledo helpless and one the Rockets won’t encounter again, at least to the same magnitude. Kansas’ size advantage in the post proved overwhelming, contributing to a 44 to 28 edge on the glass. Five-star freshman Joel Embiid, a 7-footer who didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16, posted 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Perry Ellis, the top returner from last year’s team that captured a ninth straight Big 12 title, contributed 21 points and 11 boards. They strained Toledo’s front court, inducing early foul trouble on Nathan Boothe and J.D. Weatherspoon and ultimately succeeding in knocking Boothe out of the game.
“We knew they were going to attack us inside,” Toledo’s Rian Pearson said. “They were bigger than us.”
The Rockets, who will hold their own on the boards in the MAC, were one-and-done on four key offensive possessions late, unable to dig further into a nine-point hole with under five minutes to go. Their offensive efficiency at virtually all other points of the game sparked an impassioned critique by Kansas coach Bill Self of his team’s defense. Toledo’s 83 points exceeded Kansas’ average surrendered by 16.5 points, matching the total Duke put up against the Jayhawks in Kansas’ neutral site win in November.
“When you have to make shots at home to win, it’s not a good sign,” Self said. “That’s what I keep telling our guys. We had to shoot 67 percent in the second half to make sure we won the game and that’s a bad, bad sign.”
Toledo’s defense, a sore spot early on, has taken a promising step in recent weeks. Before Kansas, whose 56 percent shooting derived from 54 paint points, the Rockets had held three of four opponents to 41 percent or less.
If coach Tod Kowalczyk’s team can continue to score, and mix in enough stops, the Kansas loss will be among a small number the Rockets suffer on their streak-stopping quest.
“We’re going to be a better team coming out of here,” Kowalczyk said.