HOUGHTON – The beginning and coming end of Austin Armga’s basketball career mirrors plenty of other elite college athletes.
The Michigan Tech senior spent every recreational hour in the gym honing his game growing up. He will leave Tech as one the school’s most prolific scorers ever, with a trail of banners, victories and signature moments in his wake.
But it is the part in between those two points where Armga’s tale makes a turn for the unconventional.
It is safe to say that, among college hoops 20-point per game scorers, Armga’s offensive style is unique.
Unique. As in, one of a kind.
The Waupun, Wis., native has combined an old-man’s Sunday-night arsenal – complete with fakes, midrange shots, post-ups, angles, backboard English and the occasional witchcraft – with superior athleticism to score 23.4 points per game at an uber-efficient rate (52.3 percent field goal shooting and 86.5 percent from the free throw line). The 6-foot-3 guard has done this all while dishing out more assists than turnovers, and leading the team in rebounds (5.0) per game.
“I’ve never seen anybody that plays like him,” fellow senior Alex Culy said. “It’s hard to describe, honestly. I had a friend come down to our game at Hillsdale – at that point Austin was averaging like 30 (points) per game. And my friend was looking at the box scores going ‘I can’t wait to see this Armga kid.’ I told him, ‘you aren’t even going to know what to think.’ It is so much different than anything you have seen before. There are so many moves, so many fakes.”
“I think unique is the right word,” Tech coach Kevin Luke added. “I’ve coached for 27 years, and I haven’t had as many (opposing) coaches say positive things about him as any other player. They think he is a handful. And he is.”
Armga is not sure why he developed this way.
He is not a three-point shooter – though a career percentage north of 40 from beyond the perimeter demonstrates his capability in that area. And he is not a pure slasher.
Instead, he plays basketball like it’s a riddle to be solved. A fake here to open this angle. A spin here, another one. Post the smaller guy, face-up the bigger defender.
Ruthlessly exploit and repeat.
“I never really thought about it,” Armga said. “But I wasn’t born with great height, I wasn’t born with a 40-inch vertical, so I’ve had to come up with other ways. Those 15, 16 footers, you give up those as a defense. So I always had that shot and just kept making it.”
Perhaps most telling, Armga’s preferred shot – a midrange pull-up – is the exact shot most (if not all) defenses want to give up.
Since the advent of the three-point line, the midrange game has faded into obscurity in basketball because it offers little value. Free throws come from attacking the rim. Step back a few feet behind the arc, and the shot is worth 50 percent more.
So modern defenses gear opponents towards that shot with glee.
But Armga shoots over 50 percent from the floor. He has broken the system.
“That’s the most demoralizing thing for a lot of teams and defenders,” Culy said. “There is five seconds to go in the shot clock, he is going straight left and pulled up for a jump shot. Well, that is actually his favorite shot. What are you going to do?”
“I get a lot of older fans. They seem to like watching me play. They say that to me, and it makes me smile,” Armga added.
Like anything else, Armga came upon this skill through repetition.
Preference gave way to proficiency. Proficiency to mastery.
Armga says his dad, Randy, was likely the biggest influence here, as the Waupun High varsity coach had access to a gym any time Austin wanted to shoot.
Which was all the time.
“As fifth or sixth graders me and one of my best friends Dylan Wurtz – whose dad Lucky Wurtz was the varsity coach at the time – were always at varsity practice just shooting on a side hoop,” Armga said. “By seventh and eighth grade, they would throw me into drills whenever they needed an extra guy. I just loved being there. along with my Dad knowing the game, his biggest contribution was just allowing me to play 24/7. Anytime I wanted to go, he had the keys to the gym.”
Despite leading the state of Wisconsin in scoring as a junior, the college offers did not come flying in for Armga.
He is small for his true position – a three-guard – and his unconventional game may have distracted from his natural ability.
Armga said he had a handful of Division II offers, and peripheral interest from smaller Division I schools, but he waited until his senior season to make a decision.
Tech fans are grateful he did.
Luke did not offer Armga until midway through his senior year, a decision he looks back on now with nervous laughter and relief.
“We had watched him that summer, and liked him a lot, but didn’t offer him because of our numbers,” Luke said. “Then we found out the guys we had (at Tech) weren’t as good as we thought – they were good Tech players – but I said to (assistant coach Josh) Buettner, ‘go get a scorer.’ He is the one who came to mind and luckily he was still available.”
While Armga has cracked the 1,000-point club at Tech, he spent the first three years playing second banana to two-time GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar – who usually occupied Armga’s preferred space down low – and thus averaged 11.1 points per game his first three seasons, a number less than half his total this year.
Armga points to the banners now hanging in the SDC – two GLIAC North Division Championships and an NCAA Tournament appearance – as all the stats he needs.
Through four seasons with Armga, the Huskies have cruised to a 73-38 record (and counting). In the four years before Armga – and Culy, Haidar and Ben Stelzer – Tech’s record stood at a middling 49-62.
“You see that nine-year gap in the banners, and we were the start in the new era putting banners back up in the gym,” Armga said. “We can come back here in 30 years for a reunion, and those banners will still be here. That means a ton to me.”
“The biggest thing for me is how much he cares about this team,” Culy added. “To see that for four years is huge.”
Of course, Armga’s story is not yet finished.
The Huskies came in at No. 5 in the NCAA Regional Rankings this week (the top eight qualify for the tournament) and there is still the GLIAC postseason to play.
Through 25 games this season, Tech’s offense has hummed to the tune of 1.195 points per possession. While those numbers are not available across Division II basketball, 1.195 PPP would rank No. 6 nationally in Division I hoops.
It starts with Armga.
His ability to score one-on-one, regardless of who is defending him, opens up lanes and opportunities for a bevvy of shooters.
He has breached the 20-point barrier 17 times this season, the 30-point barrier four times and can carry the offense for stretches by himself.
Luke is confident Tech can matchup with any opponent in the country when the Huskies play to their peak.
“He has a green light to do whatever he wants. No rules apply to him,” Luke said. “I hope we go out on his terms.”