Don’t look now, but the MAC has been one of the best mid-major conferences in the country this year. Buffalo snags the brunt of the headlines, but it’s more than just the Bulls. There’s another program on the rise, and it resides in Toledo.
Tod Kowalczyk isn’t often mentioned in the conversation of best offensive coaches, but perhaps he should be. Since taking over at Toledo before the 2010-11 season, Kowalczyk has transformed Toledo into one of the best offenses in the MAC.
How’s he doing it? Shooters. Everywhere.
It’s not a secret that basketball as a whole has continued to become a perimeter oriented game. According to KenPom, college basketball teams are attempting 38.7 percent of their shots from behind the arc, which is the highest mark since the line’s implementation in the college game in the 1986-87 season.
Rather than be left behind, Toledo and Kowalczyk have embraced the three-point line. Since the 2015-16 season, Toledo has been above the national average in three-point rate, and the last two seasons have been its best efforts yet.
The Rockets have not only been high-volume shooters, they’re one of the most accurate teams in the country. Last year, Toledo attempted 41.7 percent of its shots from behind the arc and connected on 40.6 percent of those, which was sixth in the nation. This year, the Rockets are letting it fly from deep 41.4 percent of the time while knocking down an even 39.8 percent, which is No. 14 nationally.
It’s not a coincidence that Toledo is off to a 12-1 start behind this sharpshooting. Just how good are the Rockets? Well, they’re coming off of a 30-point drubbing of a Penn team that holds wins over Villanova and Miami. The Rockets rank No. 52 in KenPom and have a top-50 offense for the second consecutive season. Toledo is among the best in the country at sharing the ball, ranking No. 21 nationally in assist rate at 60.8 percent.
Toledo’s first option the last couple of years has been Jaelan Sanford. The 6’4 guard has proven himself to be a capable scorer at all three levels. He’s averaging a career-high 17.8 points per game, and has scored in double figures in all but one game this year. He’s shooting 35.4 percent from three — which is low by Toledo standards — but is the one that Kowalczyk wants taking the last shot. In the Rockets’ overtime win against Marshall, it was Sanford who hit the game-tying three at the end of regulation to force the extra period.
Sanford is able to operate all over the floor because of the spacing that Toledo’s bigs provide. Senior forward Nate Navigato has proven himself to be one of the best stretch 4s in the country. At 6’8, Navigato has been a mismatch for opposing forwards behind the arc. He’s knocking down an absurd 53.2 percent of his triples at a high volume. He’s connected on 42-79 attempts, and two thirds of his field goal attempts are behind the line. He can operate in pick-and-pop situations, or as a spot-up outlet as the defense collapses on drives. Per hoop-math, over 90 percent of his made threes have been assisted.
However, Navigato isn’t the only big who can step out on the perimeter. Center Luke Knapke has been almost as dangerous from the outside, albeit on a lower workload. He’s hit 16-34 from distance, providing yet another option for Toledo’s high-powered offense.
Off the bench, Chris Darrington provides a spark of offense out of the backcourt. At 10.1 points per game, he’s one of five Rockets averaging double figures. And of course, he’s knocking down triples at a high clip. The Tennessee transfer is knocking down 41.9 percent of his attempts, but that’s not even the most important part of his game. Because defenses have to respect his outside shot, Darrington has excelled at getting to the rim and drawing fouls. Per KenPom, he’s drawing 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes and has a free throw rate nearing 70 percent. In under 20 minutes per game, Darrington has proven himself to be a super sub that Kowalczyk can rely on to generate points at a high volume.
Toledo isn’t one dimensional, and neither are its players. Although the Rockets excel from behind the arc, the players who might not be as accurate from distance still find other ways to leave an impact on the floor.
Willie Jackson has only attempted three shots from behind the arc, but he also happens to be the team’s best rebounder. At 6’6, the junior wing is averaging a double-double with marks of 11.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest, and has tallied six double-doubles so far this year.
Marreon Jackson leads the team in assists with 4.6 per game, making him one of the most important catalysts for the Rockets’ high-powered offense. He’s also the head of a defense that has cracked the top 100 in KenPom after finishing No. 247 last year.
Toledo hasn’t been the NCAA Tournament since 1980. The path to its first Big Dance in almost 40 years will not be an easy one. As mentioned above, Buffalo is the team to beat in the MAC. But the Rockets are the clear-cut leader in the MAC West, and will get a chance to prove that they’re legit right from the jump with matchups against Ball State and Buffalo to open conference play.
An at-large bid is probably out of the picture. But this year’s iteration of the Rockets is different than prior years. These Rockets are talented. They are efficient. They are dangerous, and their embrace of the three-point movement has them ready to take off come March.
Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference, KenPom.com, and Hoop Math.