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December 21, 2007
Around the Rim
News and Notes

by John Perrotto

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There are few mid-major coaches who do a better job than Stan Joplin, even if few outside the Maumee Valley seem to notice.

Joplin has been the coach at Toledo, his alma mater, the past 12 seasons and has put together quite a resume. He has led the Rockets to three 20-win seasons, four Mid-American Conference West titles and four NIT appearances.

However, this hasn't been one of Joplin's best seasons. The Rockets are just 2-9.

"It's tough, especially when you're used to winning the way our program has over the years," Joplin said. "Unfortunately, some things have happened to work against us and we're having a hard time winning games right now."

Toledo figured to be in at least partial rebuilding mode this season after losing three starters from a team that won the MAC West and had the best regular-season record in the conference last year. Justin Ingram, Keonta Howell and Florentino Valencia combined to average 42 points and 14 rebounds a game last winter.

However, the Rockets suffered a major blow when senior point guard Kashif Payne decided to leave the team for personal reasons just a week before the season began.

The 5-foot-9 Payne was the engine that drove Toledo's offense last season as Joplin decided to abandon his traditional half-court sets to play a more up-tempo style. Payne was even bigger on the other end of the floor, being named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year.

"We miss Keonta a lot," Joplin said. "I certainly would have scheduled a little differently if I knew we weren't going to have him at point guard this year. We've had an extremely tough schedule and it's been even tougher without an experience point guard like him."

Joplin has never been shy about playing a strong non-conference schedule. Toledo has had a killer one this season. The Rockets have played just three of their 11 games at home and had a stretch of six straight on the road at point on a trip that saw them log more than 7,600 miles while paying visits to Old Dominion, Dayton, Rhode Island, UNC Wilmington, Pittsburgh and Houston. Toledo lost all six.

"It's not the ideal thing to do," Joplin said of the tough schedule. "I think it's the right thing to do when you are a mid-major, though. You need to go on the road and play top teams. That's how Butler has built their program, by playing top programs on the road and beating them."

However, Toledo isn't beating those teams this season. Instead, they are the ones taking the beatings.

Some bright spots have emerged, though, most notably junior guard Tyrone Kent. He has moved into Payne's point-guard spot and averaged a team-high 18.5points and 3.7 assists a game.

Junior forward Jonathan Amos, the only returning starter from last year, has been Toledo's top player in the frontcourt with averages of 12.6 points and 5.0 rebounds a game. Senior forward Jerrah Young, an underachiever since transferring from West Virginia following his freshman year, has also stepped up with averages of 8.5 points and 6.3 rebounds.

"We're getting better," Joplin said. "We've been forced to throw a lot of inexperienced players into the fire and I think it's going to help us once we get into conference play."

Toledo has won at least 10 MAC games in nine of the last 10 seasons. Despite their poor record this season, the Rockets could still wind up winning a lot of games in the MAC as no one in the West has a winning record. Toledo will play 10 games inside the division.

Eastern Michigan is at breakeven with a 4-4 record but Western Michigan is 5-6, Central Michigan is 4-6, Northern Illinois is 2-8 and Ball State is 0-9.

All the MAC power teams are in the East as Kent State is 9-2, Akron is 8-2 and Ohio is 7-3 and Toledo has Kent State and Ohio at home this season.

If nothing else, Toledo has gotten through its tough non-conference schedule in one piece.

"I'm not ready to fire the coach who made the schedule yet," Joplin said with a laugh.

Good News in Tucson

While Arizona officials fully expect Lute Olson to return from his season-long sabbatical to coach next year, a succession plan has been put in place in Tucson. Assistant Kevin O'Neill, who is serving as interim coach this season, will be Olson's replacement whenever the 73-year-old decides to retire.

O'Neill was previously a head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern but compiled just a 152-165 record in 11 seasons. He was also an uninspiring 33-49 in his one season as an NBA coach with Toronto in 2003-04.

However, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood is not deterred by O'Neill's sub.-500 record. Instead, he has been impressed by the Wildcats' 8-2 record this season.

"He's done phenomenal--not good, not great, but phenomenal," Livengood told The Arizona Republic. "The things he's done are miraculous when you look at the whole situation. It's unbelievable."

Jayhawks in Balance

There may not be a more balanced team in the nation than Kansas.

The Jayhawks have had seven different players lead them in scoring during their 11-0 start. They also have five players with scoring averages in double digits: Darrell Arthur (13.2), Mario Chalmers (12.6), Sherron Collins (11.0), Brandon Rush (11.0) and Darnell Jackson (10.5).

"That's who we are," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We're not going to have guys who are going to make first-team All-America or anything like that because his stats aren't going to be like that."

Team to Watch

This week's Team to Watch is Wisconsin, which dropped out of the AP's top 25 following losses to Duke and Marquette, but is No. 4 in the Pomeroy Ratings. The Badgers are 8-2 and the two losses are quality ones as Duke is No. 2 in the Pomeroys and Marquette is No. 5.

Indiana and Michigan State look like the class of the Big Ten this season, but Wisconsin seems poised to challenge them for conference supremacy.

While defense is always the calling card of Butch Ryan and Wisconsin is holding opponents to just 52.5 points a game and 36 percent shooting from the floor, sophomore guard Trevon Hughes and senior forward Brian Butch are providing a fine outside/inside duo on the offensive end. Hughes is averaging a team-high 15.2 points a game and Butch is scoring 13.2 points and grabbing 7.9 rebounds a game.

Wisconsin's next big test comes Dec. 29 when it visits Texas in its final non-conference game. The Badgers could conceivably be 7-0 in the Big Ten when they host Indiana on Jan. 31, as they open conference play with two games against Michigan and one each against Iowa, Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue.

Games of the Week

The top five games of the next week, based on the Pomeroy Ratings through Thursday's games, with all times Eastern.

No. 10 Texas vs. No. 9 Michigan State at Auburn Hills, Mich., Saturday, Dec. 22, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 32 Memphis at No. 11 Georgetown, Saturday, Dec. 22, 12 p.m., ESPN
No. 31 Tennessee at No. 15 Xavier, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2 p.m.., ESPN
No. 16 Missouri vs. No. 35 Illinois at St. Louis, Saturday, Dec. 22, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 22 Clemson vs. No. 30 Mississippi at Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Dec. 22, 5:30 p.m., No TV

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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