The Toledo Rockets are the favorites to win the Western Division of the Mid-American Conference and are generally considered to be the strongest team in the entire conference. They won their only exhibition game 74-59 from Wayne State despite the absence of their star, Keith Triplett, who was held out of action because of a bruised knee. Triplett is expected to be ready for the Vanderbilt opener.
Toledo's Head Coach is 47-year old Stan Joplin, who was a star player at Toledo in the late 1970s. He has held his present position since the 1996-97 season. He came back to Toledo after serving as an Assistant Coach at Kent State (1982-84), Toledo (1984-90), and Michigan State (1990-96). In his eight years at the Toledo helm his teams have achieved a composite 137-99, and have had a winning record six times. The Rockets were 20-11 last season.
Triplett, the star player, a 6-3 senior, is the shooting guard and averaged 19.6 ppg in 2003-04. He made 41.5% of his threes, but gets a lot of points on drives and even by rebounding. He had 147 grabs last season, high on the team, and handed out 96 assists, second best. There is no doubt that he is the best guard, and probably the best player, in the MAC and needs only to be an effective leader this year to be the complete package.
The point guard is 6-2 sophomore Justin Ingram, a rising star in his own right. He averaged 10.0 ppg in his freshman season and led the team in assists with 111, with a very good assist/turnover ratio of 1.8. He is another good three-point shooter, making 39.0% of his efforts in 2003-04. Coach Joplin says that he needs to improve his defense and he will be put to the test Friday of guarding Vanderbilt's leading returning scorer, Mario Moore.
Sammy Villegas, a 6-6 junior from Puerto Rico, plays on the wing and gives Toledo a third outside threat. In fact, he led the team in treys last season with 80 and knocked down 40.6% of his efforts. As a scorer, he is more strictly a spot-up shooter than Triplett and Ingram, and also fires them in consistently from mid-range.
Toledo's two top players beneath are both sophomores, 6-10 Allen Pinson and 6-5 Florentino Valencia. Pinson, who scored 5.4 ppg last season and led the team in blocks with 31, needs to become more of a force on the boards. At 235 lbs he has some heft, but needs to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble. He can shoot from mid-range and even tries the occasional three.
Valencia is a muscular 240-pounder who can be a handful beneath despite his lack of height. He is a Chicagoan who scored 6.8 ppg in his freshman year. He is a muscular board man and defender who will have to guard a taller man most of the time. He may not start but will play most of the minutes.
Kareem Milson, a senior who is 6-7 and weighs 235 lbs, started against Wayne State. Although he provides valuable playing time, he is not a scoring threat (1.7 ppg last year). The actual sixth man, and one who can put the ball in the basket consistently, is 6-4 sophomore Keonta Howell. He took Triplett's place in the starting lineup against Wayne State and scored ten points. Last season he scored 2.0 ppg and sometimes shot the three (25.7%).
Toledo has reasonable depth and can also bring in 6-4 sophomore Will Burger, 6-8 junior Anton Currie, and 5-11 sophomore Rashay Russell. None of them scored very much last season, but the athletic Burger, who was a walk-on, was best at 2.5 ppg after making the team. Three freshmen, 5-9 Kashif Payne, 6-7 Jerrah Young, and 6-10 Haris Charalambous, complete the roster. Payne and Charalambous could see a fair amount of action as back-ups at point guard and low post respectively, but Charalambous did not play against Wayne State and might be held out.
The key matchups for Vanderbilt would seem to be Jason Holwerda on Triplett and Corey Smith on Villegas, but Mario Moore and Alex Gordon will have to contain Ingram, who is capable of going off and having a big game. On the other hand, Toledo obviously could have a lot of trouble handling Vanderbilt's bigger players on the inside. This makes it important for the Commodores to be able to get the ball into those men so that they can score.
Vanderbilt has played Toledo in men's basketball only once before. That was on December 29, 1970, in the championship game of the Sugar Bowl Basketball Tournament, the Commodores winning 90-76. Rod Freeman and Thorpe Weber were the leading scorers for the Dores that night, with 23 and 21 points respectively. Vanderbilt has had tremendous success through the years againt MAC opponents.
Toledo is an excellent outside shooting team and the key to Vanderbilt's winning this opening game is to keep the threesome of Triplett, Villegas, and Ingram from getting too many points. If the three can be held to a combined 40-45, Vanderbilt should win. If they score in the 55-60 range, big trouble is in store. For Toledo, strong rebounding and improved defense are needed; they got blown out by Western Michigan, Louisville, Kent State, Marquette, and Ball State in road games last year, although they did win a big one at DePaul. Vanderbilt should win by 7-10 points on Friday night and the margin could be greater.
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