Now the fun really starts.
For a University of Toledo men’s basketball team that has stayed loose and relaxed throughout the regular season and has genuinely enjoyed playing with one another, it’s now tournament time and the Rockets will try to end a Mid-American Conference tournament title drought that dates back to 1980.
“We’ve been having fun with it all year and we can’t get away from that,” UT junior Jaelan Sanford said. “As long as we are having fun, moving the ball, and playing defense like we have been, we should be fine.”
For as much fun as these Rockets have, they still have a strong sense of focus and attention to detail and they know when to buckle down, which is a big reason why Toledo (21-10, 13-5) won the MAC West regular season title.
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“It’s the best time of year,” said UT senior Tre’Shaun Fletcher, the MAC’s player of the year. “I can hardly contain my excitement, and I’m ready to go out there and play right now. You don’t want to change anything and that’s how we’ve been.
“We want to be loose and tight at the same time if that makes sense. We don’t want to be too loose and get caught off guard. We know when it’s time to have fun and play, but we also know when it’s time to switch it on and get serious.”
The first step for the No. 2 seed Toledo is a quarterfinal matchup with No. 7 Miami on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Toledo enters the MAC tournament having lost three of its last five games, including two games to the No. 3 seed Eastern Michigan. Despite how the end of the season played out, UT coach Tod Kowalczyk is pleased with where his team is at this point.
“We’ve been extremely positive and productive,” Kowalczyk said. “We are confident. We had a really good three days of preparation. I’m really happy with where we are because we are healthy and confident. We’re playing well, and we’re just looking forward to the conference tournament.”
In Toledo’s lone meeting with Miami this season, the Rockets won 73-67 on Feb. 9 in Oxford.
Junior Nate Navigato led Toledo with 19 points in that matchup, Fletcher had 18 points, and Sanford scored 15.
Miami’s leading scorer is Nike Sibande, who was named MAC’s freshman of the year Tuesday. He averages 14.6 points per game.
“Now we know we are playing Miami,” Kowalczyk said. “We have a lot of respect for their program. They are athletic, and they are going to ball pressure quite a bit. They play extremely hard. They are very talented. We had a really close game at their place, and we are going to get their best shot.”
The Redhawks also have a point guard in Darrian Ringo who is the top assist man in the conference at 7.1 per game. In the first meeting, Ringo scored 16 points but only had two assists.
“They pressure you on defense, and they crash the glass hard,” Fletcher said. “They have some really good young guys that you have to keep out of the paint. They have a good point guard in Ringo. We have to contain him and keep them out of the lane and not let him get assists, and I think we’ll be fine.”
For every team left in the quarterfinals, a trip to Cleveland is full of possibilities and that is no different for Toledo. After its regular season success set the program up well with a bye into the quarterfinals, Toledo will have to win three games in three days to snag the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“We are taking it as a new season has started for us,” Sanford said. “We’re hungry, we’re excited, and we are just going to take it game by game. Our regular season success gives us confidence and trust in each other. We know what we can do, and we are going to take that into the tournament.”
“It’s definitely set us up well with us being the No. 2 seed, so we definitely have to take advantage of that and play sharp,” Fletcher added. “We have to be ready to play.”
What Kowalczyk is looking for from his team during the tournament is simply continuing what has made them successful in the regular season.
“I think we have to just stay together and make plays at both ends of the floor,” Kowalczyk said. “We have to get stops, and we have to make shots. You can only do that if you stay together and you stay positive.”
“It’s a great time of year. Anybody who is a fan of basketball loves this time of year.”
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