HOUGHTON - Through three games this young season, Michigan Tech forward Ali Haidar has outperformed even head coach Kevin Luke's high expectations. Pouring in 29.7 points per game on 64 percent shooting, he has twice won the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Week award - which has only been given out twice.
Haidar has perfectly filled his role as the star needed for a conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth.
Now the Huskies need to learn to play without him.
Michigan Tech’s Kyle Stankowski puts up a shot during the Huskies’ Nov. 7 exhibition game against Finlandia. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
In their loss against Minnesota-Duluth, Haidar saw only 21 minutes of floor time thanks to picking up two quick fouls in the game's opening two minutes. With Haidar sitting next to a fuming Luke, the Huskies fell behind 10 points by intermission and 22 points from the senior forward was not enough to close the gap in the second half.
"We do have to learn how to play without him better if we want to be the caliber of club that I think we can be," Luke said. "There are going to be days where he gets in foul trouble, and we need to be patient and grind it out. Shooters need to shoot, and drivers need to drive and it's that simple."
Luke accepted blame for Tech's lackluster offense against the Bulldogs, as so much of the preseason was spent working on the intricacies of the Haidar-in, four-shooters-out offense, that a long-term Plan B was never fully developed.
"We just haven't put much emphasis on it because we spent all our time trying to get good with him," Luke said. "I didn't realize until (Duluth) that we didn't know how to play without him. I just didn't put much emphasis on it and it hurt us."
With GLIAC play starting today at Malone for the Huskies, Luke spent practice after Thanksgiving rectifying that situation by sitting Haidar for extended periods. In a conference known for its physicality, there will be games - though Tech hopes not too many - where primary scoring needs to come from elsewhere.
Two options appear ideal.
Of the three starting guards, Austin Armga best qualifies to carry the offense for stretches with his ability to attack the hoop. The junior has been relatively quiet through three games this season with 8.3 points per contest on just 40 percent shooting.
And in sophomore forward Phil Romback, the Huskies have a talented post player capable of doing many of the same things Haidar does on the block - albeit, with less zest and dominance.
Romback too has been quiet early, collecting 19 points through three games on 35 percent shooting.
"Phil has some good talent down there," Luke said. "He can make some nice moves in the post. Now he needs to realize that he can do that at this level all the time. I don't think it has sunk in yet because he hasn't been playing (in college) for that long."
Then, when he does have Haidar on the floor, Luke spends many a moment thinking of more ways to get him the ball in more spots.
After knocking down 4 of 5 threes against Bemidji State last Tuesday, the Husky offense will evolve around who is guarding Haidar.
If a bigger, slower defender draws the assignment, Haidar will see even more time on the perimeter.
"He is a handful, he really is a handful," Luke said. "If he is 4-for-5 (from three) they are going to look like me in the hair department. There is no question. If he is making shots from the perimeter, that makes it tough."
It will take a smart offensive performance for the Huskies to start GLIAC play with a win, as Malone spends much of the game in a 1-3-1 defense.
Patience and ball reversals are the key to opening up the 1-3-1 according to Luke. The Pioneers have opened the season 2-1, with one win against a Division III opponent and the loss to Division I Missouri State. They finished 12-15 last season.
"They are going to be OK in (the GLIAC)," Luke said. "They had some big wins last year."