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Toledo emerges as the leader of MAC

The Rockets have soared to a 9-1 record in the MAC and ride an eight-game winning streak to a 17-4 overall record.

NCAA Basketball: Toledo at Michigan State
Ryan Rollins elevated his scoring touch this season. The sophomore is averaging 20.0 points per game, up from 13.7 as a rookie.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Toledo men’s basketball team reached the NCAA tournament, the Soviet Union still existed, ESPN was less than a year old, and Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States.

Despite the Rockets’ 42-year tournament drought, their sights are set on the season ahead and not their past.

“Coaches may have it on their minds, but it’s not a number we think about,” forward JT Shumate said.

Toledo has emerged as the head of the pack in the MAC, winning 10 of its last 11 games and beginning conference play with a 9-1 record. As the calendar turns to February, the Rockets find themselves atop the conference standings, hoping to finish what last year’s squad started.

Tod Kowalczyk’s squad went 15-4 in the conference a season ago and entered the MAC Tournament as the favorite to reach the NCAA Tournament. After escaping the quarterfinals with an overtime win over Ball State, the Rockets fell to future Cinderella and No. 5 seed Ohio in the semifinals.

“We got outplayed in the tournament,” Shumate said. “We have to bring it. You lose one game, and you’re out.”

Despite their setback in the MAC tournament and losing arguably their best player, Marreon Jackson, who transferred to Arizona State, Shumate believes they’re a different and better team all the way around.

“We drive the ball better and don’t shoot as many 3s,” Shumate said. “No matter what, we do what it takes to win.”

Toledo is led by reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Ryan Rollins (20.0 point per game) and Walsh University transfer Shumate (15.0 ppg). Rollins leads the MAC in scoring and was voted preseason All-MAC First Team. Shumate is pacing the Rockets behind the arc at 49%, which ranks among the nation’s leaders.

As Shumate guides the Rockets offensive attack, he knows the team’s selflessness and versatility contributes to their success.

“I pride myself on doing whatever we need on any given night,” he said. “If I’m not going to score, I’m going to box out well and bring the energy. If I need to step out and hit some shots, I’m providing what we need to win.”

Slated to finish third in the MAC in the preseason poll, the Rockets are ahead of frontrunners Buffalo and Ohio in the standings and defeated them in back-to-back contests. Their most recent win came over Akron.

“Watch how hard we play,” Shumate said. “We pride ourselves on that. We want to play harder than our opponents do. We feel like we play harder than any other team in the country.”

Their effort has translated to success on the hardwood as they lead the MAC in both field-goal percentage and assists. With the additions of Ra’Heim Moss and Rayj Dennis, the Toledo defense has also taken a step forward.

Toledo will take the floor in hopes of extending its eight-game winning streak at Eastern Michigan on Tuesday. Following the mid-week matchup, the Rockets will travel to Ball State before hosting in-state rival Ohio on Feb. 8. Four of the five contests after that are against teams under .500, which provides Kowalczyk’s squad with the opportunity to cement itself as the No. 1 seed in the MAC.