This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Xavier from the Big East. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Morehead State. The next program in our series is Toledo basketball. Tod Kowalczyk just finished up his 11th season leading the Rockets in the Mid-American Conference.
Kowalczyk has created a winning culture since arriving at Toledo. In his second season, the Rockets improved by 15 wins, second best in the country. He has set the school record for wins in a season at 27 in 2013-14. Toledo won 20 games the following season for the program’s first back-to-back 20-win seasons since the late 1970’s. And, this past season was Toledo’s fifth 20-win season during Kowalczyk’s time there, as the Rockets finished 21-9 and captured the MAC regular-season title. I had the chance to talk to Coach about how Toledo continued to excel despite the pandemic.
The Story of the 2020-21 Toledo Basketball Program
With so much uncertainty before last college basketball season, it was hard to plan and prepare for pretty much anything. Most programs were biding their time on Zoom and figuring out how to prepare their team for the 2020-21 season without knowing whether they would be playing or not. However, Toledo doesn’t fall into that category. The Rockets were actually able to get in a summer session, something that was few and far between across the country.
“We were very fortunate that we did have a three-week summer session,” Kowalczyk said. “I thought that three weeks really gave us a chance to implement some things. [We] came out of the summer and fall believing that we had a really good team.”
Having continuity was so important last season, and Toledo basketball was able to find that. In fact, the Rockets didn’t have any in-season pauses, yet another rare accomplishment in a COVID year.
“I give our players, and especially our athletic trainer, Brian Jones, a ton of credit for navigating the COVID,” Kowalczyk stated. “Taking precautions and being safe and doing the right things. Our guys were really good about it. They didn’t do much besides practice and their schoolwork online. They were safe, and because of their maturity, we got all our games in.”
On A Roll
Toledo started the season 7-3, including two MAC wins over Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois. Getting games in was important and something that Kowalczyk knew that his team needed to get them played as a contingency.
“We took the Michigan game early on, on a couple days notice, which put us over the limit,” he said. “We did it because we figured low and away we’d lose at least one game, and luckily we did.”
The game Toledo lost came late in conference play when Northern Illinois had COVID issues arise in their program.
Another sign of normalcy for Toledo was that the MAC decided against back-to-back games for conference play. That made them one of the few mid-major leagues to do so. For Kowalczyk and his team, that was just fine.
“Jon Steinbrecher at the MAC office did a great job,” Coach commented. “I thought the decision they made to keep the schedule like it was in the past was a great decision. We’re different than other leagues because our travel is much more accessible and centrally located. We don’t have to do the Thursday-Saturday thing and, luckily, we didn’t do the back-to-back games at the same venues.”
With a somewhat normal off-season and a full non-conference slate under their belt, Toledo basketball went 8-1 in January, with the only loss coming by one in overtime to a solid Akron team. Kowalczyk was pleased with the way his team came together.
“I thought we had really good team chemistry,” he remarked. “We had a really explosive offensive team and a defensive team that had some versatility. We weren’t the deepest team because of the injury of AJ Edu, but I thought last year’s team really played the right way on both ends of the floor.”
Toledo finished the back half of their schedule 5-3, finishing 15-4 overall in the MAC. That performance earned them the regular-season title and the top seed in the league tournament. Neither of those are an easy task in a league that is consistently deep and places teams in all four post-season tournaments regularly. The Rockets were set to face Ball State in the quarterfinals, a team they had just played at the end of the regular season and has been a thorn in their side over the last few years.
“Ball State was a really talented team, and they were clearly not, ability-wise, an eight seed,” Kowalczyk said of their first opponent. “They’ve played really well against Toledo the last three or four years, and to be perfectly honest, they’ve had our number. So, they had our full attention and our full respect.”
True to Kowalczyk’s statement, the Rockets needed overtime to dispatch the Cardinals 91-89. Unfortunately, they would fall to Ohio the next night 87-80, ending their NCAA Tournament dream. That didn’t end their season, though, as Toledo basketball received an invitation to the shortened NIT field.
“The NIT is a tremendous tournament,” said Kowalczyk. “We’ve been fortunate enough to get at-large bids into the NIT three times, which, as a mid-major, is extremely difficult to do. This year’s team certainly was worthy of one of those bids.”
All-in-all, it was quick turnaround from the Ohio game on March 12th to Toledo’s first game against Richmond on March 17th. The Rockets’ season ended against the Spiders, 76-66.
“We had a tough match-up with Richmond because of their style of play on an extremely short turnaround,” Coach said. “Because of their Princeton style, that’s a really hard preparation. [I] thought we, especially in the first half, played really well. Second half not as great, but I felt like we were the better team and should’ve won, but unfortunately we didn’t.”
Reflecting on Toledo Basketball
Despite not reaching the ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament appearance, Toledo once again proved they are one of the best programs, not just in the MAC, but at the mid-major level. Kowalczyk credits that success to the good guard play he has been able to have.
“Every year I learn a lot,” he said. “One thing I…reemphasized is that, in college basketball, you have to have really good guard play. We had really good guard play, and that’s what made us really good.”
In fact, Toledo had the MAC Player of the Year in Marreon Jackson, who’s insane state line was 18.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He was joined in the backcourt by Ryan Rollins and Spencer Littleson, both of whom had their own impressive stat lines. Kowalczyk had praise for his frontcourt as well.
“Our post players were undersized but extremely talented and very versatile,” Coach stated. “We played positionless basketball. It was a fun way to play. Our players bought in and I give them all the credit for having a great year.”
Given Tod Kowalczyk’s track record at Toledo, the Rockets aren’t going away anytime soon. Toledo basketball should be back near the top of the Mid-American Conference in 2021-22.