Odds are stacked against shorthanded Northern Michigan men upsetting Michigan Tech

MARQUETTE – If Northern Michigan University third-year men’s basketball coach Doug Lewis wants to pick up his first win against Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Berry Events Center, he’ll have to do it shorthanded.

Lewis will only have seven players dressed for the first of two GLIAC showdowns this season. When the two sides meet again in the regular season finale on March 2 in Houghton, a best-case scenario could boost the Wildcats’ lineup to eight.

Northern finished with only five players a week ago in a 74-44 loss in Sault Ste. Marie to Lake Superior State. Junior forward Matt Craggs and freshman guard Stephan Pelkofer were suspended one game for a violation of a team rule, and senior forward TJ Cameron left the game with a concussion.

On top of those three absences, the Wildcats have lost four players for the season with injuries – Cameron, who won’t play against Tech, could become the fifth – and two others are ineligible this season.

“That’s the hand I was dealt and I’m going to play it,” Lewis said. “Tech is a rival game and the GLIAC is not a forgiving league.

“No one cares if you have seven guys, 13 guys, two of your best guys out.”

The seven players Lewis played in the 81-48 loss to Northland in Midland last Saturday – Craggs, Pelkofer, Kendall Jackson, Joe Simon, Quinten Calloway, Spencer Huss and Matt Iverson – are the only seven bodies he’ll have to pull off the upset of Tech.

Craggs leads the NMU offense, averaging 14.3 points per game, while Jackson leads NMU with 112 rebounds and 18 steals.

“Our only guy who really is a big scoring threat is Craggs,” Lewis said. “We can’t get him into foul trouble.”

Since taking over for former NMU head coach Dean Ellis in 2010, Lewis has lost all four meetings against Tech by an average score of 82.5-65.5. But the Wildcats nearly upset the Huskies in Marquette last season.

NMU led Tech with 7:42 to play, fell behind by nine with 1:17 to go and rallied to within four before the Huskies buried some free throws to hang on, 70-64.

The major headache for NMU that night was Huskies’ 6-foot-7 forward Ali Haidar, who went 15 of 16 from the free throw line en route to a game-high 27 points. He also pulled in 13 rebounds, all on the defensive end.

It was the same story for Northern a month earlier in Houghton when Haidar, now a senior, nabbed 15 rebounds, hit 11 of 19 from the field and 8 of 12 from the free throw line to finish with 30 points.

Through 18 games, Haidar is leading the Huskies in scoring and rebounding, averaging 25.1 points and 9.6 boards per game.

“Ali is tough,” Lewis said. “Not only is he the best big guy in the league, but probably the best big guy in the entire country.

“We’ll have to double him some, try to confuse him a little bit. He’s going to be our main focus on trying to disrupt what they do.”

Haidar’s right-hand man in the beatings of Northern last season was now-departed senior Mike Hojnacki. But he has been replaced by a pair of matured guards.

Junior Austin Armga, who missed both games last week against Northwood and LSSU, is averaging 14 points per game, 56.6 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3-point territory and 89.4 percent from the free throw line.

Tech sophomore Ben Stelzer is averaging 10.8 points per night. He leads the team in 3-pointers made and attempted, hitting 43 of 107.

At the charity stripe, Stelzer has missed only once in his 43 chances.

“They have really good shooters around him, so we’ll have to pick our poison,” Lewis said.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens.