HOUGHTON - As Michigan Tech men's basketball coach Kevin Luke explains it, there are really only two options when it comes to defending reigning Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year Ali Haidar. Double him and risk letting a horde of hot perimeter shooters get loose, or roll the dice and hope Haidar cannot score enough one-on-one in the post.
"If we do our jobs, hopefully neither is a good option," Luke quipped.
So far this season, only Northwood - the Huskies' opponent today for the GLIAC Tournament quarterfinals at the SDC - have chosen to chance Haidar solo in the post. Every other conference team has thrown some sort of consistent help at the 6-foot-7 senior.
Michigan Tech’s Phil Romback goes to the basket against several Northwood defenders during their game in February at the SDC?Gym. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Frankly, the Northwood approach has not worked. In two wins over the Timberwolves this season, Haidar has gone off for 33 points per game on 68 percent shooting.
Worse, his teammates have not been far behind efficiency-wise, with Tech lighting up Northwood for 16-of-26 threes. The Huskies have put up 80.5 points per game over the two victories at an absurd 1.36 points per possession.
While there is no telling what Northwood's approach will be today, Luke feels confident the Huskies can match their offensive output no matter the defensive strategy. Considering the Huskies shoot at a 43.5 percent clip from three-point range in home games - where Tech is 11-1 this season - and are 22-for-40 behind the arc in the current three-game winning streak, the decision to double Haidar is not quite as obvious as it may seem.
"It is interesting, because there are only a couple things you can do. Double/triple him or single him," Luke said. "And we have been shooting the ball really well from three-point the last couple of games (22-for-40). If (Haidar) is not available, do the next best thing. He (Jeff Rekeweg) is certainly not a dumb coach, because I'll tell you, a lot of times Haidar has been doubled he has still had 30 points."
And while the Huskies' inside-out offense must be giving Rekeweg fits in the film room, Northwood has kept both losses close until the very end thanks to some superior scoring works themselves.
The Timberwolves shot over 47 percent in both games, paced by 23 points per game from forward Wes Wilcox.
Wilcox fits seamlessly into the mode of scorer that can give Tech trouble, working effectively inside (46 percent shooting, 4.4 free throw attempts per game) and from the perimeter (38 percent three-point shooting).
The Huskies tried a host of different defenders on the Northwood forward last time out and are willing to rotate again until they find someone who effectively bothers the senior.
"Phil (Romback) guarded him, Troy (Hecht) guarded him and Matt Esters guarded him," Luke said. "We don't have the true 6-foot-6 three-man, so those type of players have had some success against us. We have good three-men but they are shorter."
Tech succeeded in the GLIAC quarterfinals last season in similar circumstances, taking down Ferris State for the third time that year.
While sweeping a conference team over three games is a tall order, Luke believes embracing the March mentality of college basketball - win and move on - can help ease the stress of the awkward position.
Throw in the fact that Tech has lost just once at home this season and Northwood has struggled to a 3-10 road record, and Luke is not sweating the peripheral cirumstances.
"A lot of people say it is tough to beat a team three times. I look at it as this, no matter what happened in the season it is a new challenge," Luke said. "It is a tournament. You win you are in, you lose you are out. As nice as it was tying for the (GLIAC) Championship, this is a whole new season.
"You try to put a wrinkle in here and there but we have five plays, and four of them are throw the ball to Haidar and the fifth one is let someone shoot a three," Luke added. "So we aren't changing much."