HOUGHTON - In the most high-leverage situations this season, the Michigan Tech men's basketball team has proved its worth time and again. Consecutive victories over GLIAC South Division powers Findlay and Hillsdale, overtime in Lake Superior State and a three-game run against Ferris State, Grand Valley State and Wayne State have more than demonstrated Tech's ability to perform under pressure.
It is when that pressure is seemingly off, when the Huskies get comfortable, that the ugly stumbles have occurred. The loss in Big Rapids, the second half against Lake State and defeats at the hands of mediocre Northern Michigan and Saginaw Valley teams all fall into this category. Simply, when Tech relaxes, Tech loses.
Huskies head coach Kevin Luke readily agrees with this assertion. But with three games remaining in regular season play and Tech (16-7, 13-6 GLIAC) coming in at No. 7 in the newly released Midwest Regional Rankings for the NCAA Tournament - the top eight in the region make the tournament - he believes that pressure should fully weigh on his team's shoulders once again.
Michigan Tech’s Austin Armga looks for a teammate to pass to during the first half of a Feb. 9 home game against Grand Valley State. Armga and the Huskies host Northwood in GLIAC?play tonight. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
If the Huskies win out against three sub-.500 teams (Northwood today, Lake State Saturday and Northern next week) - and barring any unforeseen bizarre math twists in the rankings - the Tech men should qualify for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004.
If they falter again, their position becomes a lot more precarious.
"The wall is here, our backs are against it and we have to push off now," Luke said. "We try to coach and keep telling them each game is important, so I don't know if we did a bad job preparing them, or they got too comfortable or what. But now they know what is at stake for the (NCAA) Tournament. That is a huge element of pressure in itself. And you hope quality teams respond to that pressure and I think we have shown that this year."
Tech may need a shot of adrenaline to help recover from the offensive slog Saturday in the 53-50 loss at Saginaw.
Luke believes the release of the rankings, combined with three straight games on the home floor should do just the trick motivationally.
"Man, I sure hope so," Luke said. "I hope it gives us a shot of energy, passion, excitement, all of the above.
"They know where they stand now. We are being truthful about it, and laying it on the line. Take care of business, and you should have a chance."
The 79-65 victory in Midland back in January serves as another example of what the Huskies are capable of when the pressure tightens up.
Tech muddled through an uninspired first half to trail 30-22, before exploding for a season-high 57 points over the final 20 minutes to tally the double-digit win.
In the second half, Tech scraped its offensive ceiling, getting 23 points out of Ali Haidar down low (34 for the game) and backing him up with 6-of-9 three-point shooting. The Huskies have been searching for that stratospheric level of play ever since.
"That is about as good a half as you can play, scoring-wise," Luke said. "We are not expecting that again, but we are expecting to be a lot closer to that than whatever we were doing against Saginaw."
And while the pressure has cranked up for Tech, Northwood and Lake Superior State are both battling for a spot in the GLIAC Tournament as well. There is no doubt in Luke's mind that his team will need to take some punches this weekend.
He also believes, this is where three consecutive games in Houghton - where Tech is 8-1 this season - should provide a boost.
"It is in our hands now. I feel like we are a good enough team to be in (the NCAA Tournament), but so do five other teams in our league," Luke said. "We haven't had a falter at home yet. Even in loss to Wayne I think we played well. We have been taking care of business on our floor."