Not since 1979, when Stan Joplin stroked a 20-foot jumper to upset Iowa 74-72 in the second round, has Toledo won a game in the NCAA tournament. Joplin's memorable shot lifted the Rockets to the Sweet 16, and his place in UT history was secure.
The Rockets' fourth all-time assists leader, Joplin has dreamed of a return to glory for his alma mater since taking over the program in '96. With all five starters (including preseason Player of the Year Keith Triplett) back from a 20-win team, Toledo is favored to win its first MAC title since '81 and make its first NCAA trip since '80. The Rockets are 137-99 (.581) with three NIT postings in Joplin's eight seasons.
In a conference loaded with quality guards, Triplett is the best. He averaged 19.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game last season. Triplett is, according to Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, "the most dangerous one-on-one player in the MAC."
Joplin doesn't shy away from putting pressure on his star player. "The way I look at it is, if he's the best player in the league, he has to lead us to the promised land," said Joplin. "He took us to the NIT, and now he has to take us to the NCAA tournament."
The Rockets employ a three-guard lineup, and the MAC's last two Freshman of the Year winners join Triplett. Sophomore point guard Justin Ingram (10.0 ppg, 3.6 apg) and 6-foot-6 junior Sammy Villegas (13.7 ppg, 40.6 percent 3-point shooter) would be a formidable 1- 2 combination in their own right. Villegas narrowly missed being named to Puerto Rico's Olympic Team.
For the Rockets to realize their goals, they're going to need a tougher mindset. Toledo ranked 10th in rebounding margin (-1.7) and 12th in scoring defense (75.5 ppg) in the 13-team MAC last season. The continued development of two sophomore frontline players may tip the scales. Florentino Valencia, an undersized (6-5, 235) power forward who started 11 games last season, should emerge as a double-figure scorer with more playing time.
Center Allen Pinson "has all the tools," according to Joplin, but needs to foul less and play more with his back to the basket.
The Rockets have some depth to rely upon. Senior forward Kareem Milson, junior forward Anton Currie and sophomore swingman Keonta Howell have been in the program and have ample game experience. True freshman point guard Kashif Payne will likely back up Ingram. Another rookie, Haris Charalambous (6-10, 260), could help in the post.