UT may improve next year

Kowalczyk: ‘I have no doubt ... we’re going to be better’

Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk says he will not leave the program. He is 61-37 since a 4-28 mark in his first season at UT.
Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk says he will not leave the program. He is 61-37 since a 4-28 mark in his first season at UT.

Tod Kowalczyk’s fourth season as University of Toledo’s basketball coach reset the program record book, with the Rockets winning more games than any team in school history.

Year five might top it.

Though another 27-win campaign will be tough to duplicate — especially encountering a daunting early-season schedule — the Rockets are positioned to be better than this year’s version that captured a share of the Mid-American Conference regular season title. Returning are 77 percent of Toledo’s points and 80 percent of its rebounds, creating expectations for the program to remain among the top mid majors nationally.

“I have no doubt in my mind we’re going to be better next year,” Kowalczyk said Wednesday, one week after a 27-7 season ended in an opening round loss at Southern Miss in the National Invitation Tournament.

Kowalczyk, whose name has been casually tossed around in the job search at Boston College, vowed that “we’ll be here” next season. Toledo extended his contract each of the past two offseasons to run through 2019. Kowalczyk is 61-37 since a 4-28 mark his first season.

Without a top-50 RPI win to its resume, Toledo was left out of the NCAA tournament after losing the league’s automatic berth to Western Michigan in the finals of the MAC tournament.

Next season provides additional chances to secure a marquee win or two. December road games at national powers Duke and Michigan highlight the non-conference schedule, making it unlikely Toledo will once again rattle off 12 wins to begin the season.

The Rockets will see a third NCAA tournament participant — Villanova, Virginia Commonwealth, or Oregon — in the Legends Classic in November.

“We’d still like to get a BCS team to play us at home or an Atlantic 10 team to play a home-and-home,” Kowalczyk said.

Next month Kowalczyk expects to sign Baltimore point guard Kamau Stokes and Chicago power forward Kurt Hall, both acquired to plug holes off the bench. Already confirmed in the recruiting class are Orlando shooting guard Stuckey Mosley and Mississippi State transfer Dre Applewhite.

Applewhite, a small forward who began practicing with the team in mid-January, must sit out the first month or so next season.

An educated guess says Justin Drummond (14.2 points) will transition to small forward from shooting guard to offset the departure of three-time All-MAC selection Rian Pearson. Pearson, the only key contributor to graduate, scored 1,589 points in three seasons with the program.

Jonathan Williams, who made the MAC’s freshman team, is the top candidate to start in the backcourt alongside first-team all-conference point guard Julius Brown.

“The next step is building on this year,” Kowalczyk said.

Cutting down on opponents’ scoring is a priority. Kowalczyk is “not happy at all” about the 46 percent of field goals opponents made against his team, a mark that ranked 11th in the MAC. In four of Toledo’s losses the other team shot at least 53 percent.

The Rockets ranked 10th in two other key defensive categories, scoring and 3-point shooting.

“Defensive focus by a couple of key individuals needs to improve,” Kowalczyk said. “Two guys that have to take the next step defensively are [J.D.] Weatherspoon and Drummond. When they get better defensively we’ll be a better team defensively.”

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