HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke did not tiptoe around the issue Wednesday after practice.
With Ferris State (11-8, 10-5 GLIAC) at the Student Development Complex today and Grand Valley State (14-5, 11-4 GLIAC) in town Saturday, the Huskies face the most critical two-game stretch of their season. Tech (13-6, 10-5 GLIAC) boasts what is likely the program's most talented roster in a decade but has underachieved for occasional stretches this year. A pair of games against two of the top four teams in the division may determine if those lapses become a forgotten footnote or the season's overriding theme.
"This is our season. Right here," Luke said. "There is a lot at stake. A conference tournament home quarterfinal (given to a top-four team), is what we are looking at right now."
Michigan Tech’s Phil Romback attacks the basket against the defense of Northern Michigan’s?Scooter Johnson during Saturday’s game at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. The Huskies are home tonight against Ferris State. (DMG photo by Meagan Stilp)
Tech currently sits tied with Ferris for No. 4 overall in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings, having lost to the Bulldogs and No. 2 Lakers on the road leg.
There are seven conference games remaining.
Coming off the most embarrassing loss of the year at Northern Michigan (4-11 GLIAC) last Saturday, Luke believes this will be a test of the Huskies' character as much as on-court skill.
"All I am asking for is effort 26 times a year," Luke said. "It is that simple. I don't demand it every practice because I know that's not possible. But game nights, yeah, I want the same effort every time.
"We should be ticked off at Ferris, we should be ticked off at Northern and we should be ticked off at ourselves. And we are. I hope."
For now, it starts with the post players.
Upon reviewing the Northern game tape, Luke cited post defense as the most glaring issue to correct as the trio of forwards Matthew Craggs, Kendall Jackson and Scooter Johnson combined for 39 of the Wildcats' 59 points. Luke and his assistants Josh Buettner and Terry Klemett were still harping on reigning-GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar and Phil Romback during Wednesday's practice to 'D' up every play.
In fact, Luke did not allow the media to speak with Haidar Wednesday, citing his play in practice.
"I'm done asking for them to play defense," Luke said. "I have a very quick big-man hook right now, and they know that. That has been explained; it is up to them. They know they are getting pulled if they don't defend. That is the first time I have told a team in 26 years, 'I will pull you if you are not defending.' That is the first time I have ever said that."
Defensive intensity from Haidar and Romback - or Kyle Stankowski and Luke Heller should Luke get trigger-happy - will be the key to slowing Ferris State's athletic 'four' Daniel Sutherlin. The senior averages 11.3 points per game, with 2.3 offensive rebounds per game heavily factoring in to the scoring output.
In the 74-66 loss in Big Rapids, Sutherlin grabbed three offensive boards with the Bulldogs collecting 11 total on just 26 missed shots.
"Guys have to find a way to bring it every day - We don't want to embarrass our fans by playing the way we did at Northern," Tech guard Alex Culy said. "You have to have a little pride if nothing else."
In the loss to Ferris in January, Ferris drew 26 attempts at the free throw line (hitting 20) as guards Kenny Brown (17.2 PPG) and Drew Lehman (13.9 PPG) found the middle of the paint on dribble-penetration far too consistently.
With the Husky guards at a disadvantage athletically, crisp (and loud) communication will be the key to keeping the Bulldog guards going sideways around the perimeter.
"They got middle last time, and that is one of our core philosophies, we cannot give up the middle of the floor," Culy said.
In the defeats to Northern and Ferris, Haidar was only able to put up nine field goal attempts as double-teams forced the ball away from him too often. He averages 15.1 attempts per game.
"To be honest with you, I haven't even looked at the stats (from Northern), there was nothing to look at," Luke said. "But I will tell you this, if he doesn't defend he is not going to get more than nine shots because he is not going to be playing but yes, normally we need to get him more shots than that."
Austin Armga (14 PPG, 57 percent shooting) will be available to Tech off the bench after missing the last three weeks and five games with an ankle sprain. How available though, is still a mystery to Luke.
"He is available, yes. I don't know to what extent," Luke said.
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