HOUGHTON - Before the season began, Michigan Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke installed a 2-3 zone in October practices that may as well have had a "break glass in case of emergency" cover page in the playbook. Like a 50-degree Houghton day in January, it was simply bizarre to watch Tech go through zone rotations.
And while it was never seriously considered for any full-time use after the first couple weeks of preseason practice, the fact that Luke believed the Huskies needed a contingency plan spoke volumes to his biggest concern entering the 2012-13 schedule.
Now with the 2012 part of the season wrapped up, the Huskies sit at 8-2 overall - tied for second in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with a 5-1 mark - and are enjoying a five-game winning streak with the average margin of victory at 18.4 points per game in the run.
Michigan Tech’s T.J. Brown drives to the basket during a Dec. 8 home game with Hillsdale. The Huskies return home tonight to play Lake Erie. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
More impressively, however, it hasn't simply been the dynamic offense of 2011-12 fueling the success. Holding opponents to 39.1 percent shooting and 30.4 percent from three, Tech has placed itself as one of the most well-rounded squads in the GLIAC.
"I have talked to coach about this a lot," Junior guard Alex Culy, and 2011-12 All-GLIAC Defensive Team member, said. "It really is a toughness I think. You have to want it every second. I think for us we are taking pride in it and we are using our defense to start our offense. If we can get a couple good defensive possessions in a row, we settle in."
Be it another year playing together, or the growing sense that this season could prove memorable, Luke believes he has a 100 percent commitment from his players on the less glamorous end of the court.
"I think they bought in, that's really the difference," Luke said. "We have made a commitment to play our defense, plain and simple. I think our communication has gotten a lot better and that is why our team is better right now."
Curiously (and perhaps, unsustainably) Tech's defensive dominance - including holding five straight opponents under 56 points - has come as a result of stingy three-point defense. This is most curious, as Luke acknowledges, because open threes are often the byproduct of good offense against good Tech defense. With a "no-layups" credo, Tech is prepared to give up some long-range attempts (and then adjust in-game, if necessary) to protect the hoop.
So how has Tech held teams to just 30.4 percent on the year beyond the arc, with a 26.1 percent mark against conference opponents?
"We need to run them off the line, be there on the catch," Luke said. "With our defense, we know that we are going to give up a couple threes, but we don't like it. It is really hard, no matter how athletic you are in this day and age, to put pressure on a three-point shot and take away layups. So if they want to shoot threes, they are going to shoot threes. We just want to disrupt it as much as we can."
Against Lake Erie (4-4, 1-4 GLIAC) today, that perimeter defense will be put to the test as the Storm enter the contest shooting 41 percent beyond the arc.
Guards Riley Thomas and Jamil Dudley both average over two triples per game on 46 and 59 percent three-point shooting, respectively.
According to Culy, the Huskies have found success not only closing out hard, but forcing the ensuing dribble-drive into anticipating help. If several early possessions can be disrupted that way, the effect on opposing shooters for the rest of the game is significant.
"I think when you are disciplined, and you a have a lot of seam help it eventually deters them," Culy said. "I think if you keep at it, it just wears them down after a while. If you look back at the Hillsdale (win), they jumped out to a lead but we just kept playing our stuff and kept grinding. And I think it wore them down a bit and took them out of what they wanted to do."
Saturday, the Huskies host Ashland, which defeated Tech 73-59 in Ohio last season.
The Eagles have struggled out of the gates this season, however, with a 2-4 conference record and 4-5 mark overall.
They are still powered by burly forward Evan Yates (16 ppg, 10 rebounds per game), who got the best of Ali Haidar last season.
"Yates wanted to win that battle and he did," Luke said. "They just flat out beat us."