RedHawks will battle high octane Rockets
By MIKE SMITH
Going into Miami's season finale at Buffalo, the question wasn't who Miami could meet in the upcoming MAC tournament. It was could MU make the tourney.
The best chance to get there was to beat Buffalo, but a second half Bulls rally snuffed out that option. The only other tourney-enabling scenario was for all three teams locked one game behind Miami to lose Friday. That did happen, with Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green all falling.
Regardless of who reached Cleveland, the No. 8 seed was going to meet No. 1 Toledo, and Miami will face an outstanding UT squad at 11 a.m. Thursday in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
Toledo ran its current winning streak to a national-best 15 games Friday with an 87-81 victory over Ball State. That locked down a third straight MAC regular season title for Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk's crew.
Still, the Rockets envision . . .
. . . much more. Its been quite a while since UT enjoyed post-season success. Toledo's last NCAA appearance was in 1980, when it lost to Florida State, 94-91. One year earlier, Toledo picked up its only NCAA tournament win with a 74-72 victory over Iowa. It then lost to Notre Dame 79-71 in second round play.
More recently, Toledo has made three NIT appearances since 2019, falling to Xavier (2019), Richmond (2021) and Dayton (2022).
The guarantee to getting another NCAA tournament shot is to win the MAC tourney, and means three more wins. Miami is the first hurdle. The winner of that game would then meet either No. 5 Ohio or No. 4 Ball State Friday. The latter was one of two MAC teams to beat the Rockets (90-83 Jan. 3 in Muncie), although Toledo recently avenged that setback. Kent State, the No. 2 seed, beat UT in their only meeting. That 75-63 decision Jan. 10 in Kent was Toledo''s last loss.
Among the Rockets' 16 MAC wins are two triumphs over Miami. The first was close, with UT winning 81-78 Jan. 31 in Oxford. Toledo cruised to an 89-71 victory Feb. 14.
One of the biggest difference between those two encounters was free throws. Toledo went 6-of-10 at the line and had two more field goals in Oxford. It was a different story, however, in the second meeting. While Miami had four more field goals, UT got to the line for 36 free throws, sinking 30. The RedHawks got just six tosses and made five.
Fouls and free throws have been a key factor in a number of Miami games in recent weeks. When opponents have been able to drive the lane and draw fouls, it not only piles on points, it typically leads to key Miami players like forward Anderson Mirambeaux spending more time on the bench. The RedHawks are particularly short on experience inside.
On the other hand, the more Miami gets to the line, the more damage it can do. The RedHawks have consistently led the MAC and are currently tied with Miami (Fla) for 10th among NCAA teams in free throw percentage (78.02%). When MU defeated Western Michigan 85-78 Feb. 7, the RedHawks got to the line for 29 charity tosses and made 26. The Broncos went 6-for-12 at the stripe.
MORE NOTES . . .
~~ The Toledo basketball program has been thriving at a time when Miami's has struggled. But just how long has it been since MU beat the Rockets?
Well, it goes back to a time when Miami's roster fielded the likes of Julian Mavunga and Julian Winbush. Miami defeated UT 68-66 on Feb. 12, 2011.
~~ The Rockets offense can operate like a well-tuned machine. They lead the MAC in scoring by nearly seven points, averaging 85.7 ppg. The Rockets have exceeded 100 points four times -- twice in MAC play.
~~ Toledo's RayJ Dennis was recently a unanimous choice as MAC Player of the Year. He is second among MAC scorers, registering 19.4 ppg. Also among the top 10 are JT Shumate (16.5 ppg) and Setric Millner (15.9 ppg). Dante Maddox Jr. is also averaging double figures (11.5 ppg).
~~ Shumate, a senior who also earned first team All-MAC honors, has a well-rounded game. He can -- and has -- hurt the RedHawks from both inside and out. He is also consistent. Shumate has reached double figures this season in all but two games in which he has played at least half the game.
~~ Millner earned Second Team All-MAC honors.
~~ Toledo tops the MAC in field goal percentage (49.6%) and 3-point goal percentage (40.5%).
~~ Although Miami leads the MAC in free throw percentage, Toledo is just one spot back, hitting 77.6 percent from the line.
~~ Miami point guard Mekhi Lairy, who received Third Team All-MAC honors, ranks fourth among MAC scorers (17.4 ppg). Morgan Safford is 13th (15.2 ppg).
~~ Mirambeaux (Honorable Mention All-MAC) is sixth (MAC) in field goal percentage, connecting on 54.2 percent of his shots.
~~ Lairy's 91.9 percent mark in free throws tops all MAC players.
~~ At 25-6, both Toledo and Kent State are 10th nationally in winning percentage.
~~ Safford (5.8 rpg) and Mirambeaux (5.7 rpg) lead MU rebounding.
~~ Miami's rebounding has improved through the year, but the RedHawks still rank 11th (32.0 rpg) (MAC) overall and are 10th in offensive rebounds (8.9 rpg). They are also 10th in rebounding margin (-2.0).
~~ One area of inconsistency for MU is turnovers. Overall, the RedHawks (13.4 tpg) are eighth among MAC teams. In their last two regular season games, they committed 22 against Ohio and 10 at Buffalo.
~~ Toledo's explosive offense puts pressure on all opponents. While the RedHawks have improved on transition defense since early in the campaign, they will still be challenged against the talented Toledo attack.
~~ Three other areas remain important, as well: rebounding, fouls and turnovers. At times, MU does fine in each. At other times, there can be issues.
~~ Miami, of course, is a very young team, so the tournament experience is just not there. Keeping Safford on the court as much as possible would be helpful. He has been a cornerstone throughout the season.
~~ The same goes for Lairy and Mirambeaux, of course, so the trick will be to play good defense without accumulating a slew of debilitating fouls -- especially during the early portion of each half.
~~ Kamari Williams and Ryan Mabry have buoyed the Miami perimeter game recently, and some more success there would certainly boost the RedHawks cause.
~~ With such a young and inexperienced squad, Head Coach Travis Steele knows the options are limited. He would no doubt, however, like to see his RedHawks display the improvement they showed during their recent win streak. Play well and see where it takes you.
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Editor-Publisher Mike Smith
Mike grew up in Mid-American Conference football and basketball territory and returned there after military service. He has been covering MAC football and men's basketball for much of the last several decades.