HOUGHTON - In the 12 losses suffered by the Michigan Tech men's basketball team last season, now-departed senior Mike Hojnacki averaged nine points per game on 42 percent shooting. In the 16 wins, those numbers jumped to 12 ppg and a fantastic 60 percent shooting from the field.
While the three points per game margin (with an 18 percent shooting difference) might not seem like a game-changing deal on the surface, consider seven of the 12 losses were by nine points or less and three of the defeats finished with a two-point or fewer difference.
Move four of those close games into the win column, and the Huskies might end the season in the NCAA Tournament instead of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference one. The difference from solid-to-good and good-to-great can be that small.
Michigan Tech’s Phil Romback takes the ball to the basket during the Huskies’ Dec. 8 home win against Hillsdale. Romback has averaged 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in his sophomore season. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Which is why Tech coach Kevin Luke - with his team sitting at 8-2 after the 2012 portion of the schedule - positively bubbles with excitement when talking about sophomore Phil Romback's last two games.
"I think he is starting to understand what his role should be for us," Luke said. "He is getting it right now and that is big. He can be really special for us."
In lopsided wins over Tiffin and Wisconsin-Parkside, Romback netted 21 and 17 points, respectively, while handing out seven total assists with three steals and three blocks.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore has upped his 3-point shooting to 48 percent (fourth overall in the GLIAC), with his total field goal percentage at a crisp 52.
Much like Hojnacki last season, Tech's level of play appears closely related to just how well Romback is performing. In the two losses, Romback has managed just six points per game. In the eight wins, he's scoring at double that pace.
"He is what we called Hojnacki last year and that is kind of the X-factor," Luke said. "We know what we are going to get from (Ali)?Haidar, we know what we are going to get from our guards. We are going to be really good if Phil keeps playing like this. if he can do the things he has been doing, then we have a chance for something special I think."
As Hojnacki's replacement, Romback provides much of the same skill set on offense as the departed senior, with a much higher aptitude for rebounding and post defense.
His ability to stretch the floor from the 'four' position is of the utmost importance to Tech not just for his personal points, but to allow reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar (23.5 points per game) room to operate down low. So far opponents have often chosen him as the one to leave open in an effort to double Haidar.
He has made them pay.
"Our offense is really built for a good four-man, it really is," Luke said. "I don't want to say secret, because you just have to watch our tape, but that is the weapon that can set us apart. It is crucial for our spacing and really frees Haidar up to work inside and vice versa."
"If I am open I have to make those shots," Romback added. "We like to run in-and-outs, so if we pass it in to Ali and he kicks it out, I have to hit those shots for our offense to work best."
Where Hojnacki affected the game with mostly his shooting, Romback has already demonstrated a knack for making big plays off the ball to help Tech fire up.
Against Hillsdale, two momentum-swinging offensive rebounds - including a one-handed snag that resulted in an old-fashioned three-point play - helped spur the Huskies to a 14-point halftime lead over the reigning GLIAC champs. Romback added three more offensive rebounds in the win over Parkside last Saturday and the sophomore has collected at least one board off the offensive glass every game this season.
"That's just like shooting: it's contagious," Luke said. "If one guy starts doing it the other guys catch on. ... it can be a real shot in the arm."
Used in a reserve role for 13 minutes per game last year, Romback has looked more assertive with each game as a starter.
He believes it started to click for him after the early loss to Duluth that more than just "solid minutes" would be required from him this year.
"After Duluth we were saying that everyone kind of needs to figure out what we need to do," Romback said. "I definitely feel more comfortable. It's just been taking my role and doing what I have to do for the team each game. I think everyone has taken to their roles pretty well."
Third on the team in scoring and second in rebounds, if Romback were to play this way the rest of the season, the sophomore could look back contentedly on the jump he made from his first to second year at Tech.
But that is something Luke is desperately fighting against. If Romback is a solid starter, the Huskies will be solid. But if he can consistently reach the level he has sometimes touched this season, it's difficult to discern where Tech's ceiling stops.
"Sometimes you have to convince a kid that his role can be bigger than what he thinks it is right now," Luke said. "And it's not that you have to stay on top of him, but you have to keep motivating him. Because I do think he can be special, especially if he plays the way he has the last couple games."