HOUGHTON - To gauge Michigan Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke's thoughts on the upcoming season, it is best to watch his reactions in practice.
During offensive drills, Luke is clapping, encouraging and nodding satisfactorily to himself, all the while keeping up a constant stream of advice for his team.
During defensive drills, Luke's faced turns agonized. The stream of advice is rung with much more pleading and the head shakes instead of nods.
Michigan Tech’s Alex Culy launches a 3-pointer during a December 2011 game against Tiffin. He’s one of four returning starters for the Huskies in 2012-13. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Picked in the preseason poll to defend their Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference North Division title, Luke is equal parts excited about the Huskies potential to score and worried about their ability to stop opponents from doing so.
"That's going to be the question, isn't it?" Luke said. "We can do it. We can reach that (championship) level on offense. Now defensively, I don't know if we will be able to support that. But if we can it is going to be interesting."
The good: Tech returns four of five starters from last year, along with every significant contributor off the bench. Basically, the Huskies are swapping sophomore forward Phil Rombach with graduated senior Mike Hojnacki and adding freshmen Luke Heller, Jordan Chartier and Kyle Stankowski.
With reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar in the middle (19 points, 9.5 rebounds per game), Tech will be able to maintain its offensive balance that led to the North championship last season (and 70 points per game on 48 percent shooting). Haidar, surrounded by shooters Ben Stelzer (37 percent from three), Alex Culy (44 percent), Austin Armga (54 percent) and Rombach/Heller, makes for a pick-your-poison attack that should once again leave opposing defenses flummoxed.
Further, after playing together for all of last season, each Husky knows the ins and outs of each other's movements. The continuity and chemistry should give Tech an advantage.
"It is going to help a lot," Luke said. "Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence."
The bad: Of those same five starters, three are under 6-foot-3 and none are especially quick. It is not an effort problem, but a matchup one.
Tech was vulnerable to dribble penetration last season and that figures to remain an issue this year.
"Penetration and rebounding," Luke said. "It makes me nervous. Now if we can be disciplined and play position basketball, we will be fine. But if you are talking about 6-foot-3 at your small forward, then you have your work cut out for you."
Luke has even installed a 2-3 zone this season - never before considered - as he worries about the drop-off defensively with Heller and Stankowski.
"It is there, but it is not thought of right now," Luke said of the zone. "But it will be an option this season."
Luke has taken every precaution in the preseason, because along with GLIAC title aspirations, the Huskies have every reason to believe they can reach the NCAA Tournament this season, a feat not accomplished for the men since 2004.
To do so, Tech will need to defeat several teams (Wayne, Grand Valley and Ferris State) with more explosive athletic ability in the North Division.
"If we have the same record this year that we had last year, we are going to be right in the hunt again," Luke said. "The North is going to be a bloodbath."
Many of the Huskies' games could swing on the matchup issues.
Will Tech's spread-the-court offense be able to outscore the defensive mismatches it creates on the other end?
Despite his reservations, Luke certainly believes so.
"They have to guard us, too," Luke said. "Austin is going to be a handful on offense for any three in this league."