HOUGHTON - For the Michigan Tech men's basketball team, 2011-12 may be viewed as the year the Huskies became a good team, but not necessarily great. Tech actually had one fewer win this year than last, finishing 16-12 and 13-6 in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play, but did finish atop a three-way tie for first in the GLIAC North Division.
Individually, forward Ali Haidar went from good to great, averaging 19.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in winning GLIAC Player of the Year honors in his junior season. He, three other starters and six of the Huskies' top seven scorers are expected back for the 2012-13 season.
Now that 2011-12 has been logged into the history books, the Daily Mining Gazette sat down with Huskies' men's basketball coach Kevin Luke for a for a look back, the questions and answers from which are printed below:
Michigan Tech men's basketball head coach Kevin Luke (center) huddles with his team during a December home game against Tiffin. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Q: It seems that no matter what level of basketball - high school, Division II, Big Ten -there is always one team that is viewed as the "power team" of the conference. Is there an opportunity for Michigan Tech, coming off two winning seasons, to be that team in the GLIAC North right now?
A: Wooh, its tough. It is tough because of our (recent) inconsistency, but I am hoping that we can. We were there, years ago. It is tough because at Michigan Tech the academics make it more difficult. And other coaches can say that, and they will say that, and that's why its rotated with Grand Valley, Tech and Ferris (State). Those teams have kind of shifted, taken their turns. But yeah, I think we can be put in that group for the next couple years because I feel real good with what's coming back and where we are at with our young kids. There is no reason for us not to be successful next year. We have enough parts of the puzzle to not drop these one-point games, and win those one-possession games instead of lose them. And I believe that will happen.
Q: After a disappointing stretch with four losing seasons and one .500 season, what have you seen that is different in the last two (winning) years?
A: The type of kids we have recruited have really bought in. I'm not saying the other kids were bad, its just that these kids are buying more into our systems and trying to play our style. When that happens and you have each others' backs and don't worry about what your individual accolades could be then you have some success, like we have right now with this group.
Q: What are your goals for the offseason?
A: We are going to meet as a staff and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. And we are going to spend more time this year on weaknesses, than we have reinforcing strengths in the past. We are specifically looking for some team defensive stuff that is going to make us better.
Q: During the summer, who are the hardest workers that you want to direct the other guys to follow?
A: Haidar will try and drag some guys in (the gym). Depending on Alex and Ben's schedules - we can't make them stay up in the summer and we don't - you will see those guys in the gym. We just want them somewhere playing against some decent competition. And the best way to do that is against teammates.
Q: Just two big men - Ali Haidar and Phil Romback - returning that have any game experience, what are the challenges there to overcome?
A: That is going to be the challenge. Because after those two guys, we have to plan on a (redshirt freshman Kyle) Stankowski stepping up and getting some stuff done. That is a challenge. We got what we got and we have to plan on what we got and that is the challenge of the offseason. Stankowski is skilled enough, but his body (190 pounds), doesn't give him a real chance yet. We have to teach him how to play being wiry strong, if that is a fair word. He is not going to be a man with mass, he is just not going to have the mass. We have to use his athleticism and his ability to move and do the best we can with that. He is skilled with the ball and can create some havoc back there, but we have to get him game-ready to play a couple minutes here or there and be able to be tough in that practice. He is long, but toughness will be a factor with him. We have to get him involved with the toughness aspect.
Q: Do him and Connor (McLeod) still have a ways to go before they are game-ready?
A: Yes. Yes. No question ... They are very raw.
Q: Do you want Haidar working with them in the summer?
A: That has got to be a must. That has to happen now. Not weeks, now. That is the first thing I said to those guys the other day when the season is over. 'You are not a redshirt now. You are a player. And now we have to go.'
Q: If they stay raw and aren't ready to go by the start of the season, is there any consideration to installing a four-guard lineup?
A: Yes. We have to make that adjustment if they are not ready. Some of it will be determined in the next five weeks. It is hard to make an evaluation after five weeks, when they have the summer and next preseason, but if they don't seem ready we need to take that into consideration that we are going to be small and we have to make some changes philosophically a little bit. You have to be a position basketball team then because you have a 6-foot-2 kid boxing out a 6-foot-7 kid.
Q: (Matt) Esters, Jordan Reetz, maybe Troy Hecht? Are they the guys you are looking to play up a position?
A: Yes, yes. They are going to have to battle every single possession. And we have to prepare them for that, because that is the way its going to be.
Q: Schematically, what adjustments do you have to make?
A: We have done enough of that (in the past) to know what we have to do. It is not something I want to get into, but it is something we are going to be faced with if we can't get (another forward) ready. We have been pretty lucky in getting kids to give us a minute here and a minute there.
The other thing is we might get something from the (new recruits). And the other option is playing (Stankowski and McLeod) two or three minutes at a time to give Haidar or Romback a break. But they are going to have to learn how to play for 35 minutes a game without fouls.
Q: Haidar does a pretty decent job of that right?
A: He does a decent job. But it is still scary because he can't be sitting there with three fouls. Because then our options get slim fast.
Q: Do you hope the potential of actual minutes - as opposed to a redshirt year - provides motivation enough for Stankowski and McLeod?
A: That is what we have talked to them about. 'Look, there are this many minutes, somebody please grab them.' It is not going to be easy but they have to get after it.
Q: This is all assuming, of course, that Nate Kindt is not available. During the season you had mentioned that his back (disc) injury could be potentially career-threatening. Where is that diagnosis right now?
A: We are not going to know until the doctors give us some options of, 'Can he play without practice? Can he play with an hour of practice?' I just don't know.
And then he is going to have to make a decision because if the doctor says to him at any time, 'if you bend over to pick up a basketball, this could happen again.' We don't know yet and he has some follow up questions to ask. By the end of the school year we will have an idea if this thing is going to be able to work out or not. If he wants to play, we want him to play, but I don't want to jeopardize the rest of his life for one season of basketball. For the well-being of the next 50 years of his life, that concerns me.
If that is the case it is a big loss for us and a tremendous travesty for him. He fit the role perfectly for us. He didn't care how much he played, he liked that role.
Q: Has he had surgery of any sort yet?
A: He has not had surgery yet and that is what we are trying to eliminate. Because once you have surgery, I don't know enough about it, but that's not a good thing for a kid that age and that size. There is a lot of stress on that back, that is a lot of muscle to be carrying around. He is strictly up in the air.
Q: With Haidar you had mentioned earlier in the year there was a possibility of him going pro in Europe. Has he made a decision on that?
A: He is not going to do that. He is going to come back.
Q: He has told you that?
Q: How much was that a relief for you, returning the GLIAC Player of the Year?
A: A big relief obviously. And you know, I told him last summer that he had a chance to be Player of the Year, and good thing the coaches voted him that or I might have been a liar.
Friday, the discussion continues with a look back at some of the inconsistency that hampered the Huskies in the first month of the season and kept them out of the NCAA Tournament picture. Also, a look at a bright future in the Tech backcourt.