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A couple of weeks back a visitor to Tod Kowalczyk’s office asked the University of Toledo basketball coach if the Rockets planned to pursue a player who had recently left a major college program in the Midwest.
Reports of players transferring seldom slip by Kowalczyk, but this one did. The coach swiveled his desk chair to face his computer and fired off an email, commanding one of his assistants to investigate the player’s departure.
Be it burning phone lines, scouring social media sites, or curating a watch list of players who may be disgruntled, Kowalczyk and his staff attack all margins to poach transfers, a dogged initiative that has paid off in the Rockets’ 15-2 record and the team’s status as the frontrunner to win the Mid-American Conference title.
The latest import arrived Monday, though hang-ups with NCAA paperwork rendered Dre Applewhite a spectator for the team’s morning practice. The Mississippi State defection is the seventh transfer Kowalczyk has taken into his program in four seasons on the job, a number that does not reflect a one-day fling last summer with Central Connecticut’s Kyle Vinales.
Three of Toledo’s top four scorers began their career at another NCAA Division I institution, a selling point not lost on Applewhite in his courtship with the Rockets.
Rian Pearson, who followed Kowalczyk from Wisconsin-Green Bay, is poised to be the team’s leading scorer for the third straight season, averaging 14.9 points and cracking 50 percent shooting for the first time. Justin Drummond (13.8, 4.4 rebounds) and J.D Weatherspoon (11.8, 6.5) are likewise flourishing in their initial seasons of eligibility since decamping from, respectively, Loyola (Md.) and Ohio State.
“They’re having great careers, great seasons,” Applewhite said. “I thought I could fit right in.”
There were more than 400 Division I transfers last offseason, and Kowalczyk and his staff did homework on most of them, studying statistics and researching a player’s background to determine if anyone on the coaching staff had a relationship with his high school or AAU coach.
“Three to four hours every day,” assistant Jordan Mincy said. “Coffee break, a break from scouting, you’re looking at Instagram, Twitter, Rivals.com, wherever it may be to see if a kid is transferring.”
Mincy was the point man in the pursuit of Applewhite, a svelte 6-foot-5 small forward, who, like Mincy, hails from Memphis. Mincy’s older brother was a high school teammate of Applewhite’s uncle, and Applewhite’s father is a high school coach in the city.
Applewhite, who will become eligible in December after sitting out the rest of this season, averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds this season in 17.8 minutes.
“As soon as I got my release, Coach Mincy was the first guy to call me,” said Applewhite, who has 2 1/2 seasons of eligibility.
Credit assistant Jason Kalsow for landing Drummond. Kalsow attended a basketball clinic in Michigan and exchanged contact information with a man he learned later to be Drummond’s cousin. When Drummond became disillusioned at Loyola, frustrated over a fractured relationship with his coach, Kalsow’s phone rang. Drummond’s new coach, Kowalczyk, called the athletic shooting guard the best leader he’s had in his coaching career.
Past transfers Dominique Buckley and Curtis Dennis achieved success at Toledo, with Buckley contributing 9.7 points in each of his two seasons and Dennis scoring 12.7 points in the second half of 2011-12.
“The old guard would say transfers are somebody else’s problem,” Kowalczyk said. “I don’t buy that. There are a lot of reasons why a student athlete leaves: homesick, lack of playing time, relationship with players or coaches, whatever it may be. A lot of reasons aren’t negative.”
With the arrival of Applewhite, who is expected to begin practicing today, Kowalczyk’s scholarship allotment for next season is down to one. He’d like to acquire a transfer this spring, consulting the same dogged routine that led Toledo to other castoffs. Kowalczyk will also listen for murmurs of discontent from players he recruited that went elsewhere. One of them, Bowling Green graduate Vitto Brown, has appeared in just seven games at Wisconsin, averaging 3.6 minutes.
“We absolutely recruit guys the first time around knowing we may not have a chance at them,” Kowalczyk said. “We build a relationship with them and we end it in a very positive way. If we don’t get them, and they’re not happy at the other school, I’d like to think we’re the first phone call they’ll make.”
UT VS. MICHIGAN: Toledo will play at Michigan in mid-December next season. The exact date is to be determined.
Brown, Henderson win weekly MAC honors
Toledo’s Julius Brown and Bowling Green’s Anthony Henderson were named Mid-American Conference men's basketball players of the week.
Brown, a junior guard, won the honor for the West Division. He had 20 points and six assists in a 67-65 win over Buffalo including the buzzer-beating game-winning shot. He then scored a season-high 25 points in a 75-61 win at Akron.
Henderson, a Start graduate, won the honor for the East Division. The junior guard scored 13 points in a home win over Central Michigan, then had a career-high 27 in a win at Western Michigan, making seven 3-pointers to help the Falcons overcome a 15-point second-half deficit.