HOUGHTON - Fire away.
That is the message Michigan Tech basketball coach Kevin Luke has spent the last eight months grilling into his starting trio of guards. Seniors Austin Armga and Alex Culy and junior Ben Stelzer have been unleashed on the GLIAC. The only reason they don't have the proverbial green light is because that means at some point this season there could be a red light to stop them.
With center Ali Haidar graduated and his 24.8 points per game with him, the Huskies offense has a brand new look.
Michigan Tech’s Ben Stelzer releases a shot in a January game last season against Ashland. The Huskies open their 2013-14 season today against Minnesota-Duluth. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
There will be more motion, more screens and more cuts. And many more shots from the perimeter.
"There are no bad shots for Austin and Ben," Luke said. "I just get more mad when they pass them up.
"When we swing the ball, there is nothing like it. I mean we can get any shot we want. And if you get Stelzer and Culy hot and (sophomore Luke) Heller being a point-forward - he has great, great basketball I.Q. - it looks awesome."
GLIAC at a Glance
|Wayne State||17-10||16-6||Always athletic, Wayne returns five of its top seven scorers from a team that tied with Tech and will want to atone for losing its last four, including GLIAC and NCAA tourney openers.|
|Grand Valley St.||19-9||15-7||Best defensive team in the GLIAC last year returns nine players, but will need to cut down on 20 fouls per game.|
|Michigan Tech||21-9||16-6||Guard play will be vital as the Huskies adjust to life without Ali Haidar or much else experience on the interior.|
|Ferris State||14-13||13-9||New head coach Andy Bronkema will start by working on an offense that sputtered too often last season, particularly on the road, where Ferris was 3-10.|
|Lake Superior St.||16-13||11-11||Repeating Cinderella GLIAC tourney run will require big season from senior guard Derek Billing, a 41 percent 3-point shooter.|
|Northwood||13-14||12-10||Led league in rebounding margin last year and returns top three rebounders, including F Wes Wilcox, who averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and hit 40 threes.|
|Saginaw Valley St.||12-13||10-12||Heavy losses to graduation include four starters and three of top four scorers, but the Cards didn't have much going (15th in GLIAC) offensively anyway.|
|Northern Michigan||5-21||4-18||Bill Sall comes north from Ferris to execute complete program reboot. With only three returning players, this could be an ugly year.|
|Findlay||22-8||16-6||The Oilers are primed to build off winning the GLIAC Tournament at the SDC, led by preseason player of the year Greg Kahlig and his 17 points per game.|
|Hillsdale||17-10||13-9||Hillsdale made more threes per game than any other team in the league, including Anthony Manno's ridiculous 52.2 percent success rate.|
|Walsh||18-8||14-8||Walsh returns four starters from its second-place finish in the division in its first try last year as well as 7-foot-1 Croatian center Hrvoje Vucic.|
|Malone||14-12||11-11||Malone was decent but streaky in its first year in the GLIAC, both winning and losing three or more in a row three times.|
|Ashland||13-12||11-11||Marked down for the loss of post presence Evan Yates, a top-five player in scoring and rebounding. Even with him, they were just 3-9 on the road.|
|Tiffin||11-17||8-14||Joe Graessle, the league's leading returning scorer, can only do so much to help the league's worst free-throw shooting and second-worst defensive team.|
|Lake Erie||8-18||5-17||Just not very good offensively: last in FTs made, threes made and assists. Tech was one of three teams to hold them to less than 50.|
|Ohio Dominican||5-23||1-21||One league win (Ashland) and the league's worst defense by 4.5 ppg more than enough reason for a coaching chance. Long way to go here.|
Luke has good reason for his confidence.
Armga shot a ridiculous 56 percent from the field last year - almost unheard of for a guard - to return as the team's leading scorer at 12.5 points per game.
Stelzer nearly matched Armga's efficiency, hitting 46 percent of his three-point attempts to notch 12.1 points per game. The pair were named to the preseason All-GLIAC team for their scoring prowess.
Culy also comes in with a career three-point percentage north of 40, though the point guard did struggle through a prolonged slump last season to finish at 32 percent from beyond the arc, by far the lowest mark
of his three years.
Haidar averaged nearly 17 shots per game last season, and Luke is hoping to trade in some of those two-pointers for threes.
"He just keeps telling me to shoot," Stelzer said. "He is always on me for that. Anytime hands are down or I have an open shot, I should be shooting.
"Sometimes I get a little too passive, which is usually when he starts yelling."
Those threes are going to need to go in too, because the Huskies will be starting the smallest team in Luke's 20 years at Tech.
Along with the guard trio, junior Troy Hecht will man the '4' position despite standing at a listed 6-foot-3 ("Maybe with shoes on," Hecht said.). Heller at 6-foot-6 will take Haidar's place at center.
Luke and the players have expressed the utmost confidence that the starting five will be able to rebound and protect the rim as currently constituted, but have little choice in the matter anyways. The penciled in starters from the summer, 6-foot-7 Phil Romback and 6-foot-9 Kyle Stankowski, are both sidelined with injuries, with Stankowski's return looking to be after Christmas and Romback's undetermined.
All of it means that Hecht better get used to elbows at chin length as he matches up with bigger players every night.
"I take it as a challenge and go out there with a chip on my shoulder that he thinks he can get what he wants on me but I am not going to let him," Hecht said. "Every night I have to be there mentally. The toughness can't ever leave my game or else I am in trouble."
"He is going to be giving away at least three inches every night, so he has to use his athleticism and strength," Luke added. "He is really strong defensively."
Along with his prodigious scoring, Haidar also gobbled up 9.5 rebounds per game. Culy finished second on the team with 3.7 boards a contest.
Rebounding becomes a five-man job without Haidar as insurance and a battle of attitude and toughness every night.
"The word coach has been preaching is 'grittiness,' just in all facets," Stelzer said. "Defensively, hustle, being physically and mentally strong. Everybody has to be working their butt off. We are not the biggest team but we have to be the toughest."
While the rotation is still working itself out behind the starting five, expect sophomore point guard Jordan Chartier (40 percent from three) and true freshman Jason Hawke (6-foot-5) to get plenty of minutes on the perimeter.
Freshmen Nicholas Stoll and James Wezensky (6-foot-9) and Connor McLeod will back up the post spots.
"They are working hard enough to play but they are not game-tested yet," Luke said.