HOUGHTON – There is an unusual element of uncertainty surrounding college basketball this season.
With the hand-check call moved from guideline (at the officials discretion as it was in the past) to firm rule, there are a number of questions left unanswered after the first couple weeks of games.
Will this emphasis stick? Which teams benefit most? Is it actually possible to continually pressure the ball away from the hoop? How are team depth, free throw shooting and three-point attempts going to be affected? Will this slow the game down, speed it up or have a minimal effect on pace?
Through it all, Michigan Tech basketball senior guard Alex Culy believes he has noticed one thing in the early going.
He is actually better defensively now than he was last season. Without the crutch of clutching and grabbing to fall back upon, Culy finds himself moving his feet more and putting himself in a better position.
If for no other reason than that, the NCAA may have struck upon a (rare) success with this change.
“Honestly, when we first started hearing about it four weeks ago, Austin (Armga) and I were talking about it a lot. What are we allowed to do? What can’t we do? It seemed so abrupt to us,” Culy said. “But focusing on it after that, focusing on keeping your hands out and moving your feet and keeping your cushion, if you do that it makes you a better defender. I truly believe that. I feel like I have improved as a defender the last four weeks because I can’t do those other things anymore.”
That is the attitude to take going forward.
Regardless of feelings for the rule – and the Husky coaches and players by and large approve of the change to help clean the game’s over-the-top-physicality – it isn’t going anywhere over the next two months.
Officials are under strict guidelines to call games tight and certainly will stick to that notion early on.
It is the teams that adapt the quickest and earliest that will find success in November and December – crucial in Division II where fewer out of conference games weigh much heavier come NCAA Tournament time in March.
Tech passed the first test against Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday with only one player (Luke Heller) experiencing undue foul trouble. Today’s game with Southwest Minnesota State (7 p.m.) coming to the SDC should provide a sterner test, as the Mustangs doubled Duluth’s win total last season.
“I don’t think coaches should say anything because they are trying to clean up the game,” Tech coach Kevin Luke said. “Because before it was getting too physical. I think you need to teach the players defense the way it was meant to be.
“We have been practicing it this year more than ever. We are pushing that three times a week.”
Heller found himself as the odd man out last Saturday with four fouls limiting Tech’s starting center to just 15 minutes total. Three of the fouls would have been considered ticky-tacky under the old rules but are par for the course this season
With injuries to forwards Kyle Stankowski and Phil Romback, the Huskies can ill afford for Heller to make a habit of picking up cheap fouls at their thinnest position.
“We brought it up in our tape session that if he does things a little more fundamentally sound he won’t put himself in that predicament,” Luke said. “He is a very smart player. And if he wants to stay in the games – which obviously he wants and we want – he has to make those slight adjustments because he knows what’s going on.”
Conversely, the talent and use of depth will be crucial this season.
Little-used sophomore Connor McLeod filled in for Heller admirably, seeing 18 minutes of action with seven points and six rebounds. James Wezensky will factor in against larger opponents.
True freshman Quintan Harris, originally thought to be redshirting, may still play this year with minutes likely to be available.
“We are going to need everyone,” Culy said. “You can even see how that really helped us last year when (former senior) Matt Esters wasn’t playing at the beginning of the season but had a huge role when Austin (was injured). The guys know that they can be called on any given night.”