Toledo picked up a transfer from the Big East as forward Steve Taylor Jr. will finish his career with the Rockets. The news of Taylor’s transfer was first reported by Chicago Hoops.
The 6-foot-7 Taylor will have to sit out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules but he gives Toledo an experienced forward who will have one season of eligibility remaining.
During his junior season, Taylor averaged 22.1 minutes per game and was occasionally an impact player for the Golden Eagles. Taylor averaged 5.9 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range.
The Rockets also landed a solid mid-major spring commitment in former Buffalo commit Nate Navigato this spring and they’ve added some good pieces for the future with these moves.
2014-15 Season Preview: Ten possible ‘Cinderellas’
Part of the fun in filling out your bracket in March is attempting to figure out which teams are most capable of pulling off an upset (or multiple upsets) in the NCAA tournament. While some teams may be relatively obvious given factors such as their play throughout the season and the matchup in front of them, others can slip under the radar. Below are ten teams to be mindful of as the 2014-15 season moves towards its most exciting month.
1. Harvard: Tommy Amaker’s Crimson have appeared in multiple preseason Top 25 rankings, and from an NCAA tournament standpoint the program has managed to win a game in each of its last two appearances. Point guard Siyani Chambers and wing Wesley Saunders are good leaders for this group, which doesn’t lack for depth in the front court. The one question for Harvard: do they have enough perimeter shooting to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament?
2. Georgia State: Ron Hunter’s is led by the perimeter tandem of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, and they’ll have the added motivation of last year’s Sun Belt title game loss to Louisiana. Kevin Ware adds depth on the perimeter, and experienced forwards Curtis Washington and Markus Krider return for another season in Atlanta. The Panthers will be a dangerous team should they get into the 68-team field.
3. Louisiana Tech: Michael White’s Bulldogs were one of four teams to finish tied for the Conference USA regular season title, and they reached the league’s tournament final as well (losing to Tulsa). Kenneth Smith and Raheem Appleby lead the way on the perimeter, and Michale Kyser is the anchor in the middle for a team that returns four starters.
4. FGCU: Joe Dooley’s team fell one win short of a return trip to the NCAA tournament last season, but with their experienced perimeter rotation the Eagles are the favorites to win the Atlantic Sun. Brett Comer runs the show, with preseason A-Sun POY Bernard Thompson and Jamail Jones on the wings. If their four front court transfers, including Demetris Morant, are ready to go FGCU could grab the nation’s attention for the second time in three years.
5. Green Bay: The Phoenix lose inside-out big man Alec Brown but they do return one of the best point guards in the country in senior Keifer Sykes. Brian Wardle’s team returns four starters, and in junior forward Jordan Fouse they likely have the best defender in the Horizon League. And like three of their four teams ahead of them on this list, Green Bay will have a conference tournament title game loss to use as fuel.
6. Toledo: Tod Kowalczyk’s Rockets won a share of the MAC West regular season title, only to fall in the MAC tournament title game to Western Michigan. Four starters return, led by senior guards Juice Brown and Justin Drummond, and Mississippi State transfer Dre Applewhite will be eligible at the end of the fall semester to add depth to the perimeter.
7.Iona: There aren’t many teams that are as productive offensively as the Gaels, with senior David Laury IV and juniors A.J. English and Isaiah Williams leading the way. However Iona may have the toughest path to an NCAA tournament bid of any team on this list, with the Gaels likely having to fend off rival Manhattan and Siena (which will host the conference tournament) to win the MAAC’s automatic bid.
8. UC Irvine: Russell Turner’s Anteaters were the Big West’s best defensive team last season, and that should once again be the case with forward Will Davis II and center Mamadou Ndiaye back on campus. In total UC Irvine returns four starters from last year’s Big West regular season champion squad, with guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson being the others.
9. Murray State: Steve Prohm welcomes back four starters with three of those players (led by guard Cameron Payne and forward Jarvis Williams) being double figure scorers. Add in sixth man T.J. Sapp, who averaged 13.2 ppg once he became eligible (mid-year transfer from Clemson) and the Racers have the talent and production needed to win the OVC.
10. Northern Iowa: With the assumption being that Wichita State will once again be in the NCAA tournament, the question to be asked is whether or not the Missouri Valley can earn multiple bids. And if any team can help the league accomplish that, it’s Ben Jacobson’s experienced team. Seth Tuttle leads the way for a team that returns all five starters (reserves Deon Mitchell and Nate Buss as well), and newcomers Paul Jesperson (Virginia transfer) and Wyatt Lohaus are expected to compete for minutes as well.
Toledo won a school-record 27 games last season, but ultimately, that high number pales in comparison to another number that looms large over the local community: 35.
It’s been 35 years since the Rockets have played in the NCAA Tournament, and while a 27-7 season is a great year for nearly any college basketball program, it still came up short of the Big Dance.
“We use that as motivation here,” senior point guard Julius Brown said to NBCSports.com. “We feel like the community deserves a team can go to the NCAA tournament.”
Although Toledo started the 2013-14 campaign with a 12-0 record, and made an NIT appearance, expectations will be even higher this season as the Rockets return four starters and numerous other contributors to last season’s high-powered offense.
The target is now squarely on the Rockets and the team has seemed to embrace the new attention that comes with being an offseason favorite. “We feel like we have a bigger target on our back, but then again, that’s what we wanted,” Brown said.
But if Toledo wants to make it to March Madness, they’ll have to fix things on the defensive end.
The Rockets were 21st in the nation in points per game average last year at 79.8 points a game, but they also allowed opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field last season, which was next to last in the MAC. The potent offensive attack worked for most games and resulted in many wins, but Toledo started and ended the MAC season in the same way in 2013-14: with a loss to MAC West Division rival Western Michigan.
Toledo trailed by two points at halftime of the MAC conference tournament championship game in March before allowing 56 second-half points in a blowout 98-77 loss to the Broncos.
“Our guys were so comfortable on the offensive end last year that we thought we could just outscore people,” Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Our defense wasn’t necessarily bad, just inconsistent. We can’t be that inconsistent this year.”
So the focus for the Rockets this offseason has been becoming more consistent on the defensive end of the floor.
Toledo can count on scoring the ball like they did last season. Julius Brown returns as an all-league point guard after averaging 14.9 points and a MAC-leading 6 assists per game and he’s joined in the starting lineup by fellow senior guard Justin Drummond (14.2 ppg), senior forward J.D. Weatherspoon (10.6 ppg) and junior center Nathan Boothe (9.2 ppg). The Rockets also have one of the league’s top freshmen from last season returning in Jonathan Williams and Kowalczyk is also high on others stepping up and providing production when counted on.
“This is a team that I believe has continued to get better and I’m hoping we can take another step this year,” Kowalczyk said. “We’re a deeper team, we’re more athletic and we’re more skilled than we were a year ago.”
A deeper and more athletic team sounds like it could be better on the defensive end for Toledo, but to be safe, this summer for the Rockets has been geared towards getting stops. Brown said that the team hasn’t added many new wrinkles with the offensive system, but he’s definitely seen the change on the defensive end.
“Right now, I’d have to say the main focus is defense,” Brown said. “We know we lacked a focus there a bit last season and we want to get better there. I think the type of guys that we have, there’s guys that can do a lot of different things. We have a lot of versatile pieces.”
Kowalczyk knows that his team can also put up points and score with any team in the country, but he’s also counting on his senior point guard to help make a difference at both ends of the floor. With the kind of work ethic and confidence that Brown displays, it’s grown on the rest of the group and Kowalczyk expects a big senior season from his star point guard.
“He’s been an absolute joy to coach and to work with,” Kowalczyk said of his senior point guard. “I just really have enjoyed his progress about how he’s grown and matured. He’s really a guy that loves the game, works at it and studies the game. I think he’s ready to finish his career and have a great senior year.”
Brown’s confidence level is “contagious,” according to Kowalczyk and the Rockets will have to be confident to get through a very tough MAC and a non-conference schedule that includes trips to VCU, Oregon and Duke. Offense will still be a big part of how Toledo ultimately succeeds this season, but they’ve learned some lessons about maintaining focus on the defensive end of the floor and hope that a balance between the two will lead them to postseason glory. Brown is just hoping to take his senior season with a more focused approach to avoid any letdowns like the second half against Western Michigan last season.
“One of our goals is to win another MAC Championship but we also want to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Brown said. “But we need to take it one game at a time so we don’t look so far ahead.”