Wednesday, Feb 21, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Briggs

Is Toledo hoops this good or the MAC this ordinary?

  • SPT-UTMBB14-41

    Ohio's Mike Laster, left, guards Toledo's Nate Navigato in the post Tuesday at Savage Arena in Toledo.

    Blade/Kurt Steiss

  • BRIGGS-MirrorsOnSport-12

Like scissors cutting through wet tissue paper, the Toledo men’s basketball team continued to slice up the Mid-American Conference on Tuesday.

Another night, another league win, this one an 82-74 dusting of Ohio that kept the Rockets in a first-place tie with Buffalo and three games clear of the next closest contenders.

Just like we all saw coming, right?

Put your hand down, Rocky.

As for the rest of us, maybe it’s about time we have the talk: Are these out-of-the-midnight-blue Rockets really this good and this fun or — forgive my manners — is the MAC this ordinary?

For those who hear pitchers and catchers are reporting and remember, wait, basketball has started, too, it’s natural to wonder, “What’s the catch?”

Toledo (19-7, 11-2) wasn’t especially good the last two years, nor early this season. Lost to Division II power Findlay in an exhibition game. Struggled against Division III Ohio Northern. Looked terrific one night, disjointed the next.

Which means Toledo’s success must be because its league is down, no? Look at bell cows Kent State (12-13, 6-6) and Akron (11-13, 4-8), both awfully ordinary. And Ohio? The Bobcats (10-15, 3-10) are just awful, bedeviled by injuries and the misguided graduate transfer of Jaaron Simmons. The star guard who got too big for his mid-major britches is at Michigan going for his master’s in DNP-Coach’s Decision. (OK, so a free education at UM isn’t shabby.)

Surely, the MAC is this bad.

But at risk of destroying the narrative, here’s the thing: It is not.

Just the opposite, the league has rarely been better, and neither has Toledo.

To counter the first caveat, teams evolve. Know who also lost a preseason game to Findlay? Ohio State in 2007. The Rockets team that ran hot and cold in November and December is not the one that boils today.

The one that has come together beautifully around one-year rental Tre’Shaun Fletcher, a nightly triple-double tease and the frontrunner to become Toledo’s first league player of the year since Harvey Knuckles in 1981. The one that can shoot you out of the gym but also — honest to God — defends. The one that plays so freely and together. The one that catches a break or two.

Any special year requires good fortune, and early indications are the Rockets got a bit of it Tuesday.

Freshman Marreon Jackson — the true point guard who Toledo sorely missed last year and has kindled so much this season — collapsed in the second half with what appeared a devastating injury, his knee buckling after a rebound. But while coach Tod Kowalczyk promised to order up a “lot of prayers,” he said Jackson appears to be OK. Season-changing news, to say the least.

As for the allegedly suspect competition, a robust middle class has made the MAC one of the highest-rated mid-major conferences in the nation. A league jammed up by eight teams with at least six conference wins is 11th in the RPI, in a dead heat with the Atlantic 10 and well ahead of the West Coast Conference — which includes NCAA tourney regulars Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU — and Conference USA.

That’s not to say the MAC is evoking its 1960s heyday or is suddenly worthy of multiple tourney bids for the first time in 19 years. It’s just to note where it stands relative to the nation’s 32 conferences and remind that what Toledo has made look easy is in fact hard.

“The MAC is very good this year,” Kowalczyk said. “Top to bottom, it’s one of the more competitive leagues in the country. There’s no night off in our league. You look at Northern Illinois beating Buffalo.”

Ah, yes, Buffalo, that reputed world-beater. So far, Toledo and UB have been the runaway class of the league, with the Bulls (19-7) — who beat Toledo 104-94 in the league opener — perhaps just ahead.

A longtime MAC beat writer for the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer last week suggested Buffalo is the best MAC team since 2002 Kent State, which went to the Elite Eight.

To which Kowalczyk smiled.

“Maybe he hasn’t seen us enough,” he said.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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