Tech men playing a new way/Michael Bleach
It is a story as old as Naismith.
Local college stud graduates or leaves for pros. Local newspaper write story that usually involves the words, “replacing X points and X rebounds per game.” New stars ready to step up are highlighted. Good times are had by all.
And in some ways, that’s the case with the Michigan Tech men’s basketball team, as Ali Haidar graduated and took his 24.8 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per contest with him to South Beach Al Riyadi in Raouch, Lebanon.
But at a more sophisticated level, the Huskies attempt to defend their GLIAC conference title this season is much, much more complicated then that.
Because its not the 25 points and 10 rebounds per game that matter most. It is completely redesigning every way the Huskies have approached offensive basketball for the last four years.
Since head coach Kevin Luke decided to feature Haidar as the centerpiece of his attack in the big man’s freshman year, the Tech offense has been rather simple to predict, if not defend.
“The first five plays in our book were throw it to Haidar, and the sixth one was get (Ben) Stelzer a three,” Luke said.
With guards Stelzer and seniors Alex Culy and Austin Armga the center of this year’s squad, however, the focus shifts completely from a post-centered attack to some sort of flowing, interchanging motion offense (the details are still developing) designed to free a perimeter player for a shot.
That is not an easy transition for a team with 20-plus win and NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Think of the top Division I coaches in the country. Their names are attached to a system and style of play as much as any one school.
Tom Izzo – Offensive rebounding, frighteningly physical defense. Roy Williams – Secondary fast break, lots of whining. Jim Boeheim – 2-3 zone defense, obnoxious praise of 2-3 zone defense. Bob Knight – Mild-mannered teacher of young men.
Bo Ryan, John Beilein, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins, etc The list goes on, and even without knowing the roster or makeup of each team, a knowledgeable hoops fan can predict how that team will approach basketball each season. Perhaps only Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self are exempt from this list among top college coaches.
Luke acknowledges the difficulties his team faces transitioning sans-Haidar.
“I don’t know if ‘radical change’ is the right word, but it is going to be different. Really different,” Luke said.
“But I’ll tell you this, we are not going to skip a beat.”
The “skip a beat” part is where the intrigue lies most.
The Huskies have been in this situation before, and it didn’t go so well the last time.
After an extremely successful stretch in the early 2000s – aughts? Zeros? Have we decided on that decade’s name yet? – with Matt Cameron and current assistant coach Josh Buettner, Tech fell into a five-year run of mediocrity absent the star big men, failing to post a winning record from 2006 to 2010. Those teams were rarely
bad – only the 2009-10 team’s 9-18 mark would be considered a blight – but they never approached the level the Huskies established the last two seasons.
So how does Luke guard against such regression again?
“During that stretch, we couldn’t shoot. Plain and simple,” Luke said. “Those teams played tough, and they defended hard, but we didn’t have someone to throw it to in the post and we didn’t have enough three-point shooting.”
With Stelzer (career 42 percent from three-point attempts), Culy (41 percent) and Armga (48 percent three, 50 percent field) scheduled for the bulk of the shots, a lack of shooting will certainly not be the case this season.
But three pure shooters does not an offense make, and uncertainty about free throws – an area Haidar affected just by drawing non-shooting falls at a ridiculous rate – three-point dependency and the pitfalls that come with it and rebounding still loom.
Tech opens its season Wednesday with an exhibition against Finlandia, before the games starting counting Nov. 16 hosting Minnesota-Duluth.
From a basketball junkie standpoint, this Husky squad will be fascinating. There are questions galore regarding Xs and Os, individual roles, the importance of one centerpiece scorer and how much can one program bend without breaking from year to year.
It is an experiment rarely seen across college hoops. I can’t wait to examine the results.