HOUGHTON - Much of the challenge that comes when the Michigan Tech men's basketball team and Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference power Findlay compete resides on the mental side as much as the physical one.
Like a Kentucky, Kansas or Duke in Division I basketball, the Oilers have built a program that rolls in the down years and dominates in the good ones. Division II National Champions with a perfect 36-0 record in 2009, Findlay once again won the GLIAC Tournament last season, making it four straight years with a regular season or tournament championship.
But the Huskies also took down the Oilers last February in the Student Development Complex 70-56 - the first win in 13 tries over Findlay.
Michigan Tech’s Luke Heller handles the ball during the Huskies’ exhibition against Finlandia earlier this season. Findlay, ranked No. 13 nationally, visits the SDC?Gym tonight.
While Findlay's physical talents are certainly still there, the mental advantage may have been lessened with Tech's upset last season.
"The only thing I know (to win) is that we have to have the confidence to play with them," Tech head coach Kevin Luke said. "And I don't think our kids are lacking confidence."
Gone from last season is star guard Kyle Caiola, but the 13th-ranked Oilers return virtually every other significant player from the 2011-12 edition.
Findlay has jumped out to a 4-1 start and a 2-0 mark in the GLIAC with double-digit victories over Lake Superior State and Northwood last week.
"They lost (Caiola) who was an all-conference player for a million years in a row," Luke said. "But I don't feel like they are skipping a beat from watching the film. They are solid, steady, they play hard. They do things right."
"Findlay, since they have gotten in the league, has been very well coached and they have a tradition of success. There are not very many other programs who have been able to keep that tradition of success up in our league like Findlay has. It is just one of the best programs in the league."
Replacing Caiola as the leading scorer and go-to guy has been junior Greg Kahlig.
The 6-foot-6 forward jumps off the page statistically, leading the Oilers at 19.4 points per game on 60 percent shooting total and 48 percent from behind the arc - where he attempts five threes per game. He also is tied for the team high in rebounding and ranks second in assists.
"The Kahlig kid is a really versatile player," Luke said. "He can shoot the three very well and he can post up. He is a major concern for us. He is that good."
Making matters worse for Tech, talented small forwards would appear to be the Huskies' weakness defensively, as they play an almost exclusive three-guard lineup.
Seniors T.J. Brown and Matt Esters, junior Austin Armga and sophomore Troy Hecht could all be options to draw Kahlig - who scored just seven points in the loss to Tech last season when the Huskies employed a triangle-and-two - but Luke is keeping that news close to his grey sweatshirt until tip-off.
"We will use different techniques and people," Luke said.
Besides his well-rounded game, what makes Kahlig so difficult are the lack of obvious weaknesses from the rest of the team. With no one player to scheme help around, Kahlig can enjoy some freedom with the ball.
It is a similar dilemma that Ali Haidar presents for Tech's opponents.
"There is nothing you can do to smoke and mirrors," Luke said. "You just have to be solid against this team.
"They can all shoot," Luke added. "Their post guys are good at what (Findlay) does, they can shoot from 15 feet, but they can also take you off the dribble and turn into a back-to-the-basket player."
Forward Brad Piehl, in particular, can cause problems from the post as the senior chips in 11.6 points per game on 51 percent shooting. Haidar will need to improve on a lackluster defensive performance in the loss to Walsh from Saturday, where Luke said he ceded ground too easily.
"We kept settling in and we let them get it on the block," Haidar said. "I just can't let them post me up so deep. It's just doing the work earlier instead of waiting for too long."