Team preview: Toledo

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Toledo's embattled coach Stan Joplin must have savored last season's finish, considering that only weeks earlier, he was rumored to be on the chopping block.

After Toledo sagged to 8-7 overall (1-6 MAC), Joplin guided his club to 12 wins in 15 games leading up to the MAC Tournament championship game. The run included 10 straight wins against conference opponents before Kent State outlasted the Rockets, 71-66, for the MAC crown.

"I didn't think [the criticism] was fair," Joplin said. "It wasn't fair to the players."

Never mind that Joplin's teams have enjoyed eight winning seasons, three 20-win seasons, and three NIT berths, plus MAC leadership in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR) and a 2.96 team GPA during the 2005 fall semester.

"We've not played our best basketball at the end of the year," Joplin said. "But last season opened up some eyes."

Toledo made its first MAC championship game appearance and only its third semifinal appearance in Joplin's tenure.

Truth be told, the Glass City was jacked up for a big season in 2004-05 when the Rockets returned five starters, but then shared the MAC West title and finished 16-13. Last season's slow MAC start had Joplin in hot water.

After a 7-2 start, Toledo opened the 2006 portion of its schedule with a road trip to Kent State and Akron, and after a home win against Buffalo, had to play road games at arch-rival Bowling Green and defending champion Miami (Ohio).

"I thought the schedule maker was trying to kill us," said Joplin, who's under contract through 2008-09.
The Rockets hit bottom Jan 21 with a 71-68 home loss to Ohio.

"We were losing a lot of close games and we weren't playing well," Joplin said. "But we were determined to maintain our course. Our players had to believe."

On the road for seven of its first 11 MAC games, a one-point win at Northern Illinois (Jan. 24) sparked Toledo's reversal. In that game, the Rockets rallied from a 15-point second-half deficit to win 67-66. Rookie Jonathan Amos sank two free throws with 3.9 seconds to seal it. Guards Justin Ingram and Kashif Payne each had 19 points.

"The players started to believe in what I was saying and they bought in, especially on the defensive end," Joplin said. "Our defense gave us more easy scoring opportunities, and our defense became our offense in a lot of situations. We were able to get some deflections and steals and make our opponents play at a lot faster pace than they wanted to. We took some teams out of their comfort zone."