HOUGHTON - A wry smile touches Luke Heller's lips as he looks back on daily practices his freshman year.
Usually assigned to guard reigning GLIAC Player of the Year Ali Haidar, every afternoon became a battle for Heller, now a Michigan Tech men's basketball sophomore.
A battle for post positioning. A battle to keep Haidar away from his preferred left hand. A battle to box out.
Michigan Tech’s Luke Heller contests the opening tap during a February home game against Saginaw Valley as Alex Culy looks on. The Huskies play Southern Indiana Saturday in the NCAA?Midwest Regional at Springfield, Mo.
It left a mark on him.
"Last year against Ali I would leave practice with bruises all over my chest," Heller said with a small laugh. "It forces you to be tough no matter what."
Heller and the Huskies are hoping those clashes with Haidar left an imprint mentally as well.
Preparing for their first-round NCAA matchup with Southern Indiana at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., one attribute sticks out from the Screaming Eagles' game tapes - sheer physicality.
USI boasts the GLVC co-Player of the Year in center Aaron Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 250 pound bruiser in the same mold as Haidar.
Nelson leads Southern Indiana at 20 points per game, with 13.2 rebounds per game - the best mark in all of Division II basketball - to go along with that. The senior forward shoots 60 percent from the field and grabs 3.89 offensive rebounds per game.
Heller, giving away three inches and 35 pounds, readily admits Nelson is the best player he will guard this season.
"We haven't played a post player like this all year, but I'm ready for the challenge," Heller said.
"You have to be really hard-nosed, really mentally and physically ready to do battle."
The rest of the Screaming Eagles follow Nelson's lead.
Southern Indiana ranks No. 2 in the NCAA at rebounding margin, grabbing 14 more boards per game than their opponents. Much of that difference comes on the offensive end, where USI earns more than 13 second chances per game, giving lift to a mediocre shooting offense.
Having to contend with a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards and a 6-foot-6 three-man leaves Tech coach Kevin Luke strategically in a bind.
He would normally prefer to sit in a compact 2-3 zone against the Screaming Eagles, forcing a mediocre three-point shooting team to try and beat them over the top. But the inherent rebounding struggles that come with the zone may be exacerbated against a team that wreaks havoc on the glass anyways.
Practice Wednesday reflected Luke's concern, with the scout team - including hulking centers Quintan Harris and James Wezensky and athletic forwards Nicholas Stoll and Michael Fisher - going to the offensive glass as hard as they could.
"Man or zone, it doesn't matter, we are going to be in for a battle no matter what," Luke said. "We have to be prepared to match their toughness every possession."
Tech senior Austin Armga hearkens back one week ago to the GLIAC quarterfinal win over Grand Valley State - a squad with a similar profile to USI - for the type of game he is anticipating.
"I don't know if you can get much more physical than that was," Armga said. "I still have the marks from that game. So I think we will be ready."
If the Huskies can handle Southern's physicality, it would appear Tech has the edge in a number of other categories.
MTU swept through their non-conference schedule this season, thanks to a deliberate offense based around the dynamic Armga and lethal Stelzer.
None of the four non-GLIAC opponents were able to keep up with Tech's unique brand of constant screening and cutting as Armga (25 points per game) and Stelzer (21.5) got whatever they wanted in four wins over Minnesota-Duluth, Southwest Minnesota St., Bemidji State and Wisconsin-Parkside.
Southern Indiana actually lost at Parkside, 81-72 at the end of January.
With Tech advancing to the second round in the NCAA Tournament last year, the Huskies come to Drury wanting more.
"The stars are kind of out of our eyes," Armga said. "We know what to expect with the timing, the atmosphere, the travel - heck, it is in the same gym as last year even. Any team in the region really can win it. I'll put our chances against anybody."