State hoops: Michigan men could get Toledo to NCAAs for first time since 1980

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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When you work in Ohio, it's pretty much understood you're not supposed to say anything complimentary about that state to the north.

Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo's men's basketball coach, doesn't operate by those rules.

"I don't care," he said with a laugh. "I love Michigan basketball. If I could just recruit two states, I would — Michigan and Ohio. There's not a whole lot of reason to go outside those two states."

Toledo's Spencer Littleson

The proof, no doubt, is in Toledo's hot start. The Rockets are 11-4 and 6-1 in the Mid-American Conference, their first league loss coming in overtime against Akron on Saturday.

Toledo is led by several Michigan standouts, among them guards Spencer Littleson and Ryan Rollins.

Littleson, a senior out of Rochester Adams, is averaging a team-best 17.6 points in league play, 13.6 overall. His 53 made 3-pointers lead the nation, one more than Oakland's Rashad Williams and two better than Michael Flowers, the Southfield A&T alum and former Western Michigan star who's now at South Alabama.

Littleson went to Duquesne out of high school, and a coaching change there eventually led him to Toledo.

Interesting, it's his defense he's most proud of at Toledo.

"Coming out of high school, that was something that people thought was a weakness of my game. Now, it's seen as one of my biggest strengths," said Littleson, rattling off a list of top-tier opponents he's guarded over the year who convinced him to up his game. "You either get good at defense or get buckets on your head." 

Littleson is one of two Toledo standouts who Kowalczyk recruited lightly out of high school, watched them go elsewhere — only for them to eventually find their way to northwest Ohio.

The other was Grand Rapids Christian forward Setric Millner Jr., who played a season at Cleveland State, left after a coaching change to go to Northwest Florida State College, and ended up at Toledo this season. He's averaging 13.6 points and a team-best seven rebounds.

For Littleson, he really caught Toledo's eye during a scrimmage while at Duquesne.

"He's somebody we really regretted not recruiting out of high school," said Kowalczyk, who has a fourth Michigan player on the roster, backup sophomore forward Luke Maranka who was homeschooled in Ada. "In the scrimmage, he kicked out rear ends, and I never forgot it. And when he decided to leave, I was his first phone call.

"Sometimes, in recruiting, you make a mistake."

Joining Littleson in the backcourt is Rollins, a freshman out of Macomb Dakota — it was Dakota that ended Adams' senior season when Littleson was a senior and Rollins was an eighth-grader, and Littleson has never forgotten it. Rollins, like Littleson standing 6-foot-4, is the top-scoring freshman in the MAC, at 14.3 points a game. He's scored in double figures every game, with a best of 20 against Xavier and Western Michigan.

With freshmen, you usually never know what to expect. But with Rollins, Kowalczyk expected this.

So, too, did Rollins himself. He also credits Littleson for helping show him the way in college.

"Just getting lessons from him, seeing what he sees on the court, how he plays," Rollins said during a Sunday phone conversation. "And, just because he's been around so long."

Toledo's Ryan Rollins

This is Littleson's fifth year in college, after redshirting following his transfer to Toledo. And he could take a sixth season if he wants it, given the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially made this a "free" year.

But he's not thinking about that yet. He's got bigger things on his mind.

Starting with the NCAA Tournament — which would be the program's first since 1980. And what a feat it would be, particularly without two key players, one lost for the season, due to injury. Toledo is doing what it's doing — it's beaten Eastern Michigan twice (by 33 and 17), Western Michigan once (by 11), and next plays at home against Central Michigan on Tuesday night — the old-fashioned way, with one good backcourt sub and one good post sub.

And the Rockets have done it the unorthodox way, too, an Ohio team with a bunch of Michigan kids — there are four players from each on Toledo's roster. Not that he's worried about optics, about what anybody from Ohio thinks. Michigan and Ohio, in his mind, is where the talent's at.

"That," said Kowalczyk, "is a fact."

Slam dunks

►The two best point guards in the Horizon League just might be in our shadows. Obviously, there's Detroit Mercy's Antoine Davis, who's finally heating up again (with 56 points in the weekend sweep of Green Bay), and not so obviously unless you've been paying attention, there's Oakland's Jalen Moore.

Moore, the JUCO transfer, was named the Horizon League player of the week after averaging 24.5 points, 13 assists and 3.5 steals in the weekend sweep of Youngstown State.

Moore's skills are dynamic, but he's frustrated coach Greg Kampe at times, too — particularly in the early going when he would try to do too much. That worked in JUCO; it doesn't always work in Division I. Kampe's frustration led to a hilarious scene earlier this year, when cameras caught him screaming at Moore, only for the two to eventually hug it out.

"Wanted to kill him," said Kampe, "but changed my mind."

It'll be the Davis-Moore show, Part II, on Friday and Saturday at the O'Rena in Rochester, as the teams wrap up a bizarre four-game series. Oakland swept the first two games at Calihan Hall.

The Michigan State men's and women's programs both are dealing with significant COVID-19 outbreaks, the men having canceled three straight games and the women three, as well, including Monday's scheduled game against Michigan. If no more games are canceled, the men will have gone 19 days between games (scheduled for Rutgers on Jan. 28), and the women 13 days (scheduled for Wisconsin on Saturday).

►Western Michigan men continue to deal with its second COVID-19 shutdown of the season, with Tuesday's game at Eastern Michigan the latest to be postponed. The teams will attempt to reschedule. For now, the Broncos are set to play again Saturday at home against Akron.

►Central Michigan head coach Keno Davis missed Saturday's win over Eastern Michigan (the Chippewas swept the season series) with an undisclosed illness. He said his absence was "more precautionary," and hopes it will be just a one-game absence.

Michigan's 10-0 start and No. 11 AP rankings are records for the women's program. One more win — at No. 17 Ohio State on Thursday — would set a program record for consecutive wins.

►With the weekend sweep, Oakland women have won eight straight over Detroit Mercy.

State power rankings

MEN

1. Michigan (11-1)

2. Michigan State (8-4)

3. Oakland (5-12)

4. Central Michigan (6-7)

5. Detroit Mercy (3-7)

6. Eastern Michigan (4-5)

7. Western Michigan (2-8)

WOMEN

1. Michigan (10-0)

2. Michigan State (8-2)

3. Central Michigan (7-4)

4. Eastern Michigan (7-5)

5. Oakland (6-7)

6. Western Michigan (1-7)

7. Detroit Mercy (1-13)

Games of the week

MEN

►Maryland at Michigan, 7 Tuesday (FS1)

►Central Michigan at Toledo, 7 Tuesday (ESPN+)

►Eastern Michigan at Buffalo, 2 Thursday (ESPN+)

►Michigan at Purdue, 7 Friday (FS1)

►Detroit Mercy at Oakland, 7 Friday and 5 Saturday (ESPN+)

WOMEN

►Eastern Michigan at Central Michigan, 7 Wednesday (ESPN+)

►Michigan at Ohio State, 3 Thursday (BTN)

►Indiana at Michigan State, 6 Thursday (BTN)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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