HOUGHTON - Last year, Michigan Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke and his staff built their team around the premise of finishing the season strong.
It worked. The Huskies won a share of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference North Division title and finished with their second winning record in a row, after four consecutive losing seasons.
It came at a price, however. As Tech was so geared up to put together their best performances in January and February, the lack of the same intensity in November and December cost the Huskies any shot at advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. The team finished with a 2-5 record in non-GLIAC games (including a loss to Division I Wisconsin Green Bay), effectively forcing the Huskies to win the automatic NCAA berth accompanying a conference tournament title. When they failed, falling 84-62 to overall conference champ Hillsdale, their season ended with a whimper.
Suffice to say, with an NCAA Tournament spot squarely on the forefront of Luke's mind, this year the message is different.
"We are putting emphasis on it," Luke said. "Last year we didn't and we faltered and it killed us. We have to be successful against these teams if you want to have a chance at the NCAAs. (Southwest Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth) are going to win a lot of games, so if we are lucky enough to come out (with a win) on the road, that will be huge."
Tech will not be starting the year with an easy, ease-into-the-season victory that so many elite Division I schools favor.
Southwest Minnesota State sits just outside the top-25 rankings - ranking third in "others receiving votes"; Tech is 21st - and the Mustangs were picked preseason to finish second in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Further, SMS's strengths appear to fall right in line with what Luke fears will be the Huskies biggest weakness.
The Mustangs rely on dribble penetration to breakdown opponents, having attempted 64 free throws in three games this season against just 51 three-point attempts. They went 2-1 in their opening season tournament - the Disney Tip-Off Classic in Anaheim, Calif. - because their one three-point shooter, leading scorer and senior Jordan Mitchell, is too lethal to help off of. This essentially spreads the floor for a 4-v.-4 situation and four Mustangs average double-digits in scoring as a result.
"We may have to give up (open) threes to stop penetration, yes," Luke responded on how to counter the Mustangs offense. "I hate to do it, because I know they are going to knock the first two down, but we cannot get beat at the hoop."
Still, as will be a question all year long for Husky opponents, the Mustangs must figure a way to slow down a Tech offense that looked unstoppable for stretches at the end of last season.
Reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar (19 points per game, 54 percent shooting) cannot be single guarded and the three-guard lineup Luke prefers (Alex Culy, Ben Stelzer and Austin Armga) are all dead-eye perimeter shooters in their own right.
This leaves the four spot - with starter Phil Rombach and freshmen backups Luke Heller and Kyle Stankowski - as the logical position for the Mustangs defense to sag off of.
"They should get some one-on-one (opportunities) and those guys are good enough to be successful," Luke said. "We feel good that they can produce if we can them in those one on one situations."
Rombach in particular brings a similar skill set that departed senior Mike Hojnacki brought last year.
The sophomore can catch-and-shoot and score around the hoop if need be.
"He brings a lot of things to the table," Junior guard Alex Culy said. "He can put it on the floor he can shoot it. With all the shooters on the outside it brings a nice balance. He brings a lot of the same qualities as Mike (Hojnacki) did."