Tech men want to add to banner collection

HOUGHTON – Hanging from the rafters on one side of the the SDC Gym is a collection of Michigan Tech women’s basketball banners so big they’ve started putting them on the walls, too.

On another, a men’s basketball collection that, though solid in its own right, hasn’t been added to in a few years.

One, for a GLIAC co-championship, is already on the way. The Huskies want to add more right away, which they can do with a run through the NCAA Midwest Regional, starting Saturday at 9:30 p.m., against Wisconsin-Parkside. It’s the seventh tourney trip for the Huskies, but their first since 2004.

“It’s awesome … it allows the players to believe that what we’re doing is the right stuff. It’s been a long time coming, but credit to our players, they never quit,” Tech coach Kevin Luke said.

Luke’s Huskies have made five tournament trips in his tenure, winning a game in four, but for players like two-time reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar, it’s the first time and for the senior, a final hardwood examination.

“It’s amazing because that’s what every team wants to do, they want to go to the NCAA and compete,” Haidar said.

The matchup, at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., is the nightcap of a four-game first day, but has as much pizzazz as any of them. It includes not only Haidar, but the Great Lakes Valley Conference’s player of the year, forward Jeremy Saffold.

Saffold averaged 18.8 points and 5.4 rebounds a game and steered the Rangers to a massive turnaround. After five straight losing seasons and a terrible 1-17 mark in GLVC play in 2011-12, the Rangers went 20-8 (14-4 in conference) and claimed the East Division title.

A 6-foot-6 small forward, Safford presents a particular issue for the Huskies because that mid-sized all-purpose player who shoots and posts up is nearly exactly what Tech lacks in its three-, sometimes four-guard lineup.

“Our guys are 6-3 and they’ve got to work their tails off,” Luke said.

However, the Huskies (20-8) have already seen the Rangers this season and throttled them 69-51 in their own gym. In that game, played Dec. 29, Tech led wire-to-wire, getting 26 points and eight boards from Ali Haidar and posting a season-high 41 rebounds. Saffold hit his eventual average exactly, scoring 18 points on 5-of-14 from the field and 7-of-14 from the line.

Despite the ‘W,’ no one on Tech’s bench appears to believe it will portend anything for Saturday’s game.

“They’re a good team and we can’t say it’s going to be an easy game because we already beat them,” Haidar said.

The Rangers are the GLVC’s most efficient team, with a league-leading 1.29 assist-to-turnover ratio despite point guard Andy Mazurczak being a freshman.

Luke said he expects the Rangers to be physical, particularly with Haidar, and try to deny the inside-out game the Huskies have thrived on. Still, Luke is much more concerned about getting the most of our of his players than what Parkside will throw at them.

If Tech survives Saturday night, it will come back to face either top-seeded Drury or GLIAC Tournament champion Findlay Sunday.

“I think our biggest issue is ourself. Being mentally tough. Mentally strong. Mentally disciplined. I think if we can do those things, we’re going to be in great shape for Saturday night’s game. I do believe, in a lot of cases, our biggest opponent is ourselves,” he said.