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Published: 1/8/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

Rockets face early challenge

Nemesis W. Michigan up first in MAC play

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

One streak is over. It’s past due to end another.

After watching their undefeated season deteriorate last week at Kansas, the 12-1 University of Toledo basketball team will open Mid-American Conference play today in Kalamazoo, Mich. — also known as the Rockets’ personal house of horrors in recent seasons.

“I haven’t won at Western [Michigan] since I’ve been here,” senior Rian Pearson said this week.

The streak of consecutive losses — six of them — predates Pearson’s arrival. Toledo last left winners from WMU’s University Arena on Feb. 25, 2007, when the Rockets forced six overtime turnovers to take a late-season step to claiming the MAC regular-season title.

Scores of the six games at WMU since UT’s last win should be approached by Rockets fans with a hazmat suit. Beginning in 2008 UT lost 75-62, 70-52, 73-41, 68-56, 74-52, and 79-56. Average point differential: 20.

Last year’s clunker — UT’s 10th loss in 11 tries in Kalamazoo — marked the Rockets’ worst performance of an otherwise decent MAC season. UT never led that evening and lost the rebounding battle 44 to 26. WMU won the rematch a month later, 65-62, and the teams split the West title.

(The MAC does not recognize Toledo as division champions because the program was banned from the postseason).

That was then, this is now.

No longer must the Rockets deal with versatile Broncos forward Darius Paul, who went off for 15 and 28 points in last season’s meetings. The 2012-13 MAC freshman of the year is sitting out this year at Illinois as a transfer, robbing WMU of a quality post presence to combat Toledo’s J.D. Weatherspoon, Akron’s Demetrius Treadwell, Buffalo’s Javon McCrea, and Ohio’s Maurice Ndour.

The Broncos even without Paul have enough firepower to contend in the West, led by reigning sixth man of the year David Brown, who leads the league in scoring with 18.9 points, and the sturdy 6-foot-10 center Shayne Whittington (15.1 points, 8.9 rebounds).

“They’re just a physical team,” Pearson said. “If we out-tough them I think we’ll win.”

Others have also found University Arena to be unwelcoming, as WMU has won 28 of 34 home games the past three seasons including five of six this year.

A tad young but embodying the same rugged tendencies prevalent throughout coach Steve Hawkins’ 11-year run, the Broncos were picked before the season to be Toledo’s primary challenger in the West. Eastern Michigan, with an influx of talent from the junior college and transfer ranks, should factor as well.

“When we’ve played well we have a chance to be pretty good,” Hawkins said. “When we have not played well we have not just been average, we’ve been awful. It’s a matter of finding some consistency.”

Toledo has been a beacon of consistency, stringing together a dozen wins in a row before surrendering to a superiorly talented Kansas team notching its 68th home victory in a row over a nonconference opponent. The Rockets, in falling 93-83, were neither within striking distance late of pulling the upset nor on the verge of unraveling.

UT enters conference play ranked 42 in the RPI rankings, positioned high enough to perhaps snag an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if the Rockets falter in March and do not win the MAC tournament. Finishing the regular season with a league mark of say, 15-3 or 14-4, could be good enough to earn an invitation for the first time since 1980, although making such a projection is premature just one week into the new year.

Starting 1-0 and exorcising the Kalamazoo whammy however would make for a good start.

“Certainly our league has taken a large step forward, but with that being said I think we’ve taken a large step forward,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We’re excited about the challenges ahead.”

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



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