With the Mid-American Conference men’s basketball tournament starting in Cleveland this week, we decided to eavesdrop on two buddies debating Toledo hoops at Rocky’s Saloon ...
Oscar the Optimist: I think this is our year, Gloomy!
Grouch McGloom: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the Earth is flatter than the Rockets in a big game.
Oscar: Come on, have some faith.
Grouch: Yeah, what’s that gotten us the last 38 years? The Rockets’ tourney drought is old enough to be running for a second term in the White House.
Oscar: Could be worse. Bowling Green’s is about to celebrate the big 5-0.
Grouch: The Idles of March, am I right?
Oscar: Har har har, but shut up about the past, already. You think a 19-year-old kid feels the weight of a couple near-misses against Eastern Michigan before he was born? [Note to 19-year-old players: Yes, the Rockets have come within a game of returning to the dance four times, including twice in the 1990s. They lost by a point to the Sweet 16-bound Eagles in the 1991 league tourney final, then to Earl Boykins and friends in 1996.] Point is, the burden-of-history angst is a fan thing. All that matters is this team has a great chance this year.
Oscar: Time to let down your guard, Gloomy. This Toledo team is the real deal. Thirteen league wins. A No. 2 seed in Cleveland. I know it’s popular to rag on the MAC, but that’s impressive stuff. Check out the RPI rankings. The MAC is 10th out of the 32 leagues, ahead of the Atlantic 10 and that conference with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.
Grouch: What, you work for the league office now?
Oscar: Look, I’m just saying I really like these Rockets. We have the best player in the league (Tre’Shaun Fletcher), shoot it better than the Warriors (technically true: UT hits a league-best 40.6 percent of its 3s, a full point better than the Golden State scattershots), and love playing together. You saw us last year. It looked like we were punching the clock for an overnight telemarketing shift. These guys have all the fun in the world. Frankly, the way we shoot, we’re just the kind of Cinderella who could pull off an upset in the dance.
Grouch: Whoa, slow your roll, pardner. Let’s see them handle somebody their own size first.
Oscar: What do you mean?
Grouch: Well, the next time they beat one of the best teams in the MAC will be the first. Look at the bracket. Buffalo is the top seed, then right behind Toledo are Eastern Michigan and Ball State. The Rockets haven’t beaten any of them. They’re 0-5 against league teams with a winning conference record, 13-0 against the rest. That’s a giant red flag.
Oscar: A little alarming, but it’s a whole new game in Cleveland. See what TK (coach Tod Kowalczyk) said when that dumb columnist asked Friday if he was concerned his team hasn’t proven it can beat the league’s best teams? “Zero. Zero. Zero. Couldn’t beat them? We had a wide-open 3.” [A Nate Navigato shot rolled out at the buzzer of the Rockets’ 71-69 home loss to Eastern Michigan.]
Grouch: Yeah, and if ifs and buts were candy and nuts ... Sorry, the Rockets are who they are, a good team with a clear ceiling. It’s the same old, same old (too little defense, too many turnovers), and it’s going to get them knocked out the first night they play someone good and the shots don’t rain in. Buffalo is too deep, Ball State too big, and Eastern, man, that 2-3 defense. It’s hell in sneakers.
Oscar: It’s almost like we’ve never seen a zone.
Grouch: Hey, that’s my line. [For the uninitiated, Kowalczyk’s reluctance to experiment with a zone despite having less than great defensive teams is the fan base’s third rail. Fortunately, blows are avoided and the conversation moves on.]
Oscar: You’re too much, Gloomy. How about we just sit back and enjoy the best time of the year? If it helps, remember these are college kids trying their best. Pretty damn talented ones, too. I’d love another crack at Eastern, and, once you get to Saturday night, it’s anybody’s game. That’s the magic of March.
Grouch: Or, for the last 37 seasons, the madness. I’m not sure I can watch anymore.
Oscar: See you in Cleveland?
Grouch: See you in Cleveland!
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