HOUGHTON - Summer workouts, 12-hour bus trips, daily practice, playing through pain and shooting slumps - all the tedious tasks that come with the collegiate athlete experience have a chance to be vindicated for the Michigan Tech men's basketball team today at Wayne State.
The Warriors currently lead the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with a 13-3 record. The Huskies trail by a game-and-a-half with a 12-5 mark in conference.
A win for Tech, and they place themselves firmly in a race for the program's first overall conference title since 2002-03. A loss, and the final four games of the season will be purely for tournament seeding purposes.
Michigan Tech’s Ali Haidar puts up a jumper during the first half Saturday against Grand Valley State at the SDC?Gym. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
According to senior and reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar, it is an opportunity to be cherished.
"That is why you play basketball, for these games," Haidar, who is averaging 24.6 points per game on 61 percent shooting, said. "We are going to go down there, we are going to be tough, and if we do the things we are capable of doing, we will come out with a win.
"If you are a competitor, this is the kind of game you want to be in," coach Kevin Luke added.
Fitting for the potential reward, the degree of difficulty will be extreme.
Wayne handled Tech 70-59 in Houghton in January, utilizing superior athleticism to disrupt the Huskies' offense and punish them on the offensive glass. The Warriors created 17 points off turnovers (Tech had zero) and pulled down seven offensive boards in the second half for an extra 14 points.
Thus, the focus of Wednesday's practice was straightforward - box out. Every play, every time.
"I will take that blame on me," Haidar said. "I need to step up and get all the rebounds for my team. I am going to try my best to be an animal on the boards so they don't get those second chance opportunities."
The quickness of guards Mike Hollingsworth, Chene Phillips and Cole Prophet was partially responsible for one of the few rough games the Husky guards have experienced this season.
Ben Stelzer, in particular, was picked three times for steals near halfcourt, leading to a trio of uncontested layups.
"The only way to combat it is to make a personal choice to be strong with the ball," Luke said. "It is about toughness, and making the right decisions every time I would be surprised if that happened to (Stelzer) again."
For the optimistic Black and Gold fan, Tech may be catching Wayne at the right time.
The Warriors have lost two in a row and three out of their last five since losing leading scorer (and uber-efficient shooter) Hollingsworth to an injury. Hollingsworth is questionable for today's game and Wayne already runs with a short seven-man rotation.
Further, Tech thoroughly controlled play in victories over Ferris State and Grand Valley State - two team's with athleticism to match Wayne.
"You can look at that one of two ways: Yes, they are struggling which can be good, or they are going to be really mad," Luke said. "And knowing coach (David) Greer, I'm betting they will be mad. We better be ready."
In the January loss, Tech hit just 4-of-14 threes while giving up 10-of-21 to Wayne.
Luke believes they Huskies may have rediscovered the proper balance between Haidar inside and the bevy of three-point shooters, however, last weekend against Ferris and Grand Valley. The Huskies knocked down 15-of-35 treys (43 percent), with Stelzer an unconscious 9-for-14 from deep.
Tech now ranks No. 1 in the GLIAC in shooting percentage.
"If we are hitting (outside) shots, we are almost unguardable," Haidar said. "Because then it becomes, how do you want to get beat, inside or outside? If I get double-teamed then I am going to find my shooters and they are just going to whap it."