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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

Rockets get Southern Mississippi in the NIT

Matchup features teams with identical records

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

One of the most decorated basketball seasons in University of Toledo history is not yet history.

After the NCAA tournament committee as expected passed them over on Sunday, the Rockets accepted an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament. The Mid-American Conference tournament runners-up earned a six seed and will open Wednesday on the road at Southern Mississippi.

The matchup in Hattiesburg features the two highest RPI teams in the field — Southern Miss at 34, Toledo at 36. The Golden Eagles, who were bounced in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament, are undefeated at home and feature point guard Neil Watson, who redshirted at Toledo in 2009-10 under Gene Cross.

Both teams carry 27-6 records.

HACKENBERG COLUMN: MAC's image hurts ranking of UT, WMU

“Surprised we didn’t get a home game, surprised they had the highest two RPI teams play in the first round,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said.

Kowalczyk said the six seed signals “lack of respect for the Mid-American Conference.”

Toledo’s hopes of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1980 unraveled a day earlier in a 98-77 loss to Western Michigan in the MAC title game.

UT last played in the NIT in 2007, falling in the opening round at Florida State. The Rockets were in the postseason as recently as two years ago, advancing to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.

“Very, very pleased and honored to be in the prestigious NIT,” Kowalczyk said. “Anybody that knows the history of college basketball knows what the NIT represents.”

No team has ever won more games than Toledo’s 27 and not gotten a bid to the NCAA tournament. Drexel and Oral Roberts won 27 in 2012 and were left out. Even with a respectable RPI, the Rockets were not thought to be a serious contender for an at-large bid. They played only one top-50 opponent, falling by 10 points in late December at Kansas. They are 6-5 against top 100 teams, but lost to 216th-ranked Northern Illinois.

Kowalczyk lamented the difficulty in scheduling high-profile teams to home-and-home series, a factor depriving mid-major teams of securing resume-stuffing wins.

“Can’t get those types of games,” he said. “If you’re a good mid-major you can’t get home-and-homes with good high-profile teams.

The death knell came Saturday in Cleveland when the Rockets let a two-point game at halftime slip away and suffered a 21-point defeat.

WMU, which shot 68 percent in the second half to attain the conference’s automatic spot in the NCAA tournament, is the No. 14 seed in the South region and will open Thursday against Syracuse.

“Everybody was devastated from the loss,” point guard Julius Brown said. “Once we knew we were playing in the NIT, our emotion got up a little bit.”

The UT-Southern Miss winner will take on Missouri or Davidson.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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