HOUGHTON - Last season, the Michigan Tech men's basketball team went from promising to outright success when they beat perennial Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference power Findlay 70-56 for the first time in 13 tries. From that game, the combination of talent, experience and confidence came to a crest to help produce the eventual GLIAC North Division champions.
Today, with North leader Wayne State (10-2, 9-0 GLIAC) entering the Student Development Complex, the Huskies (10-4, 7-3 GLIAC) face a similar crossroads.
A two-loss weekend at Ferris and Grand Valley State has pushed Tech 2 1/2 games behind the Warriors for the division and overall GLIAC lead. A setback today, and the Huskies will fall four games behind in the loss column with 11 left to play - a virtually irrecoverable margin in the top-heavy North Division.
Michigan Tech’s Alex Culy drives to the basket during a December game against Hillsdale at the SDC?Gym. The Huskies host Wayne State tonight. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Last season against Findlay, there was a crackle of expectant energy in practice leading up to and ultimately carrying over to the upset victory.
Junior guard Alex Culy feels a similar response is due this week.
"Games like this are why you play," Culy said. "We haven't beat them (since 2008). Nobody in that locker room has beat Wayne and if you can't get excited for a game like this I don't know what you can."
Of course, the Warriors come to Houghton undefeated in conference for a reason.
They possess a pair of guards in juniors Chene Phillips and Mike Hollingsworth who can take over a game on their own and support them with six other upperclassmen, rotation players who know play their roles well.
With four players scoring in double figures, the Warriors have shot a crisp 48 percent from the field and 39 percent from three in outscoring opponents by 11 points per game.
"It is clearly our toughest game of the year," Tech coach Kevin Luke said.
After struggling to contain penetration against Ferris and Grand Valley, Tech's chances hinge on keeping Phillips and Hollingsworth out of the lane.
Phillips, a transfer from Division I Liberty University, reaches the free throw line 8.6 times per game - a full attempt more than the bruising Ali Haidar does - while Hollingsworth reaches his 15.3 points per game with an outstanding 57 percent shooting total and 39 percent from three.
With constant ball-screen and attack motion, it will be Tech's ability to communicate and move seamlessly that decides which team is successful.
"It really is about winning the individual battles," Culy said. "If a guy gets his hips by you then the help has to come, and if it is off by a bit, then the whole defense collapses. So you can't let that guy get by you. If you do your job, everyone else can do theirs."
In preparation for the explosive driving ability, the Huskies may switch on picks more than usual, putting pressure on guards to hold their own in post mismatches.
"Really, it is just about fighting," Culy said. "You just have to say, 'I am going to do whatever I can to stop him from getting the ball.' I don't think there is a better word for it than just fight."
Offensively, Tech will have to adapt to the loss of Austin Armga (14 points per game) - who has been sidelined since Monday's practice with an ankle injury and been ruled out for today's game - with even more contributions from the three-point shooters surrounding Haidar.
Luke felt the Huskies did a poor job getting the ball to Haidar Thursday against Ferris and the inside-out attack has been reemphasized (vocally) since then.
In wins this season, Tech has shot 39 percent from three and that number drops to 32 percent in the four losses.
"Everyone has to score three or four more points," Luke said. "When you miss a guy like that from your system, everyone has to step up."