While many were occupied with the various NFL games, Toledo and Green Bay were locked up in a tight contest that was decided by a freshman who had yet to hit a shot.
After a missed layup and scramble for the loose ball Toledo freshman Jaelan Sanford, who had missed both of his shot attempts from the field, wound up with the ball as the final seconds ran off the clock. No problem for Sanford, who released a three-pointer from the left wing that went down as time expired. Final score: Toledo 71, Green Bay 69.
Even though the game-winner was Sanford’s first made shot of the game he’s a more than capable scorer, as he left Reitz HS in Evansville, Indiana as the school’s all-time leading scorer (1,544 points).
His shot against the Phoenix put the finishing touches on a Toledo comeback from a six-point deficit in the final two minutes and thirty seconds, with Nathan Boothe (27 points, nine rebounds and three blocks) and Jonathan Williams (26 points) leading the way offensively for Tod Kowalcyzk’s team.
Freshman Jaelen Sanford just hit a buzzer-beater to win it for the UT Men at Green Bay. His only basket of the game. pic.twitter.com/AsDcWgiT5q
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.”
The MAC has become known for parity the last few years, but last season saw the emergence of the league’s West Division after many years of dormant activity.
Before last season’s MAC conference tournament title game between Toledo and Western Michigan, the West hadn’t had a team in the league championship game since 2006 as the East Division and teams like Akron and Ohio usually dominated the league’s NCAA Tournament bid.
That changed dramatically in 2013-14 as Toledo won a school-record 27 games but ultimately fell short of making the tournament by falling to Western Michigan.
The Rockets will be favored to make the Big Dance this season, however, as they return four starters, including two of the league’s top-1o scorers in senior point guard Julius Brown and fellow senior Justin Drummond. If Toledo can improve its shaky defense and get more stops on the defensive end, they could be one of the most dangerous mid-major programs in the country this season because they can really put up points in a hurry.
Western Michigan will still have plenty of gas in the tank after only losing All-MAC center Shayne Whittington from a NCAA Tournament team. Senior guard David Brown was granted a sixth year of eligibility and is the league’s returning leading scorer and he’s joined by senior point guard Austin Richie, junior power forward Connar Tava and sophomore forward Tucker Haymond.
Representing the East Division will be Akron, who has reached 20 wins a remarkable nine consecutive years under head coach Keith Dambrot. If league history is any indication, the Zips might be the favorite to make the NCAA Tournament by virtue of always making it during odd-numbered years. Akron reached the NCAA Tournament in 2009, 2011 and 2013, with breaks one-year in between just like this season. Past history aside, Akron returns all-league forward Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell, who is one of the most productive players in the league and the team will have plenty of talent to compete in 2014-15.
With new head coach Saul Phillips at the helm, Ohio should be competitive this season as well. Senior forward Maurice Ndour is a force on the interior and the senior backcourt of Stevie Taylor and Javarez Willis should be steady for the Bobcats.
From there, the MAC is filled with question marks.
Bowling Green has a new head coach in former Wichita State assistant Chris Jans and he inherits a roster filled with experienced players. All-MAC selection Richaun Holmes returns at forward and senior guards Anthony Henderson and Jehvon Clarke can both score as well while junior forward Spencer Parker also averaged double-figures last season.
One of the surprise teams this season in the MAC could be Northern Illinois, as the Huskies improved by 10 wins last season and return plenty of talent. Head coach Mark Montgomery returns plenty of players with starting experience, including senior center Jordan Threloff, forwards Darrell Bowie and Travon Baker and guard Aaric Armstead, but he also gains Kansas State transfer Michael Orris at point guard, Purdue transfer Anthony Johnson at shooting guard and sophomore guard Dontel Highsmith returns from a ACL injury that robbed him of a promising start last season.
Kent State returns its top three scorers in guards Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson and Devareaux Manley, but the Golden Flashes were inconsistent last season and relied too much on perimeter jumpers. Buffalo begins life after MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea and must replace his stellar production in the front court this season. Eastern Michigan also returns its top three scorers from a 22-win season, but they’ll have to make it over the hump of beating the top teams in the league.
PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Julius Brown, Toledo
The senior point guard known as “Juice” returns to a 27-win team after averaging 14.9 points and a MAC-leading 6 assists per game last season. The 5-foot-10 Brown is the engine that makes the Rockets’ potent offense run and his scoring average increased to 16.2 points per game during MAC play last season.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MAC TEAM:
David Brown, Western Michigan – The 6-foot-4 senior was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after a career filled with medical issues and the Broncos will be pleased because he’s the MAC’s returning leading scorer at 19.1 points per game.
Richaun Holmes, Bowling Green – One of the MAC’s best athletes, the 6-foot-8 Holmes averaged 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as a junior while also leading the conference in blocks.
Demetrius Treadwell, Akron – The 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward is coming off of a first-team All-MAC appearance after averaging 15.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last year.
Maurice Ndour, Ohio – The 6-foot-9 senior with a 7-foot-5 wingspan put that to good use last season, averaging 13.8 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, good for top-10 in all three categories in the conference.
A quick disclaimer before I begin, because determining who qualifies as a mid-major and who doesn’t is always a touchy subject. Here is how we broke it down for these rankings: The Mountain West, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the American were all, by default, barred from these rankings. The WCC was eligible with the exception of Gonzaga and BYU. The Missouri Valley was eligible with the exception of Wichita State. Everyone else was fair game.
Why did we eliminate the Shockers from contention? Well, the complicated answer is that “high-major” delegation is more about financial resources, support from the university, the fan base and the community, and consistent, high-level success during the season and on the recruiting trail, but the simple answer is that the Shockers would be the clear-cut No. 1 team here and it’s more fun to do this without them involved. Our rankings, our rules. Deal with it.
1. Harvard, 27-5, 13-1 Ivy (1st): The Crimson return the core of a team that has won a game in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, notching upsets over No. 3 New Mexico and No. 5 Cincinnati. Their front court is deep, big and talented enough to matchup with just about any high-major. Their perimeter doesn’t have a ton of depth, but it does have Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. Barring injuries, the Crimson look like a top 25 team.
2. Georgia State, 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt (1st): The Panthers back court is absolutely loaded. Ryan Harrow, R.J. Hunter and Kevin Ware are as talented as any group of guards that you’ll find at the Division I level. There should be no drop-off from last season’s team, the one that went 17-1 in Sun Belt play, particularly if Ron Hunter can find someone to help Curtis Washington on the interior.
3. Louisiana Tech, 29-8, 13-3 Conference USA (t-1st): The Bulldogs lose three starters off of last year’s team, but more importantly that brought back head coach Mike White, who nearly took the Tennessee job, as well as their trio of talented guards, Alex Hamilton, Kenneth Smith and the now-healthy Raheem Appleby.
4. New Mexico State, 26-10, 12-4 WAC (2nd): The Aggies have made three straight NCAA tournaments and this season return reigning WAC Player of the Year, Daniel Mullings, as well as Tshilidzi Nephawe and DK Eldridge. NMSU hasn’t won the WAC regular season or a game in the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, and this year might change that.
5. Murray State, 23-11, 13-3 OVC West (1st): Thrust into the point guard role after Zay Jackson’s knee injury, freshman Cameron Payne quickly made Racer fans forget about Isaiah Canaan. Steve Prohm will return the top four scorers from that team, including double-double threat Jarvis Williams.
6. Saint Mary’s, 23-12, 11-7 WCC (4th): Losing Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker III will hurt, but Brad Waldow is back and he’ll be joined by former Stanford point guard Aaron Bright, Minnesota wing Joe Coleman and Washington big man Desmond Simmons. They’ll compete with BYU for the title of second-best team in the WCC.
7. Green Bay, 24-7, 14-2 Horizon (1st): The Phoenix lose center Alec Brown, but they return four of their top five scorers — including star point guard Keifer Sykes — from a team that beat ACC champion Virginia last season.
8. Toledo, 27-7, 14-4 MAC West (1st): Fresh off a school record 27 wins and a trip to the NIT, Toledo returns six of their top seven scorers, including all-league guard ‘Juice’ Brown, who has started 98 games in his career.
9. Stephen F. Austin, 32-3, 18-0 Southland (1st): The Lumberjacks lost three key pieces from last season’s team, but they return reigning Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker. Head coach Brad Underwood is back as well, meaning SFA will once again be a team capable of winning a game in the Big Dance.
10. Northern Iowa, 16-15, 10-8 Missouri Valley (3rd): The Panthers were a bit of a disappointment a season ago, but they return their top six scorers from last season, headlined by big man Seth Tuttle, while adding Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson.
11. Iona, 22-11, 17-3 MAAC (1st): The Gaels won 20 games for the fourth straight season a year ago. They return one of the best scorers at the mid-major level in A.J. English and should once again be the favorites to win the always-competitive MAAC.
12. Wofford, 20-13, 11-5 SoCon (t-3rd): The Terriers return everyone of significance from a team that won the SoCon tournament a season ago. Along with Chattanooga, the favorites to win the league with Davidson A-10 bound.
13. Yale, 19-14, 9-5 Ivy (2nd): Harvard is the favorite to win the Ivy League this year, but Yale, the only team to beat Harvard in Ivy play last season, brings back a loaded front line, headlined by NBCSports.com’s preseason Player of the Year Justin Sears.
14. UC Irvine, 23-12, 13-3 Big West (1st): The Anteaters rode a pair of freshmen to the Big West title last season — 7-foot-6 center Mamadou N’Diaye and 6-foot-3 guard and leading scorer Luke Nelson.
15. Florida-Gulf Coast, 22-13, 14-4 Atlantic Sun (t-1st): The Atlantic Sun may be withering with the loss of Belmont, Mercer and East Tennessee State in recent years, but FGCU’s program is as good as ever. Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer anchor the back court while another crop of high-major transfers will fill their supporting cast.
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: Belmont, Chattanooga, Cleveland State, Hofstra, Louisiana-Lafayette, Manhattan, Sam Houston State, Siena, Stony Brook, UC Santa Barbara, Western Michigan