HOUGHTON — After starting the 2022-23 season on a high note with two wins in their first three games, the Michigan Tech Huskies men’s basketball team spent much of the season struggling through incredible growing pains. They won just six more games before the GLIAC playoffs began.
During the playoffs, the Huskies upset the top-seeded Wisconsin-Parkside Rangers, 73-68. In the semifinals, the Huskies then upset the fifth-seeded Grand Valley State Lakers, 73-69. In the championship game, Michigan Tech’s Cinderella run came to an end, 79-66. They ended their season at 10-20.
For much of the season last year, the Huskies started three freshmen and two sophomores. That was a recipe for a long season thanks to a perfect storm of situations on and off the court.
“It was a big struggle because we were very, very young,” said coach Josh Buettner. “Obviously, at Michigan Tech, it’s a different situation. We’re not doing the quick fix in the portal when we lose a lot of guys at once. Even the guys we had returning, just the way the team was built, was so different from the previous year that the guys that had experience were in a completely different role than they were the year before. So, for everybody, it was kind of starting flat. I mean, offensively, a lot of our core values and things we try to do are the same, but how we executed our offense was almost brand new for everybody as well.”
The Huskies’ two early season wins came as part of a three-game home stand to start the season. Then they hit the road for six straight games and eight of their next 10. In that stretch of six games, the Huskies played four in a five-day span, which left no time for practice in between with a team full of underclassmen.
“The wins and losses weren’t necessarily there,” said Buettner, “but there’s not many teams that, going through some of the battles that went through, starting whatever it was 10 of 12 on the road, all those things, to stick with it, grinding it in the tournament, and then to pull off two upsets in there, a lot of credit to the resiliency of those guys and what they accomplished.”
Buettner and his staff put a lot of the shoulders of freshman guards Marcus Tomashek and Dan Gherezgher, along with a third freshman guard Josh Terrian, but the trio grew into their roles as the season progressed.
Tomashek led the Huskies offensively, scoring 11.8 points per game. Gherezgher was right with him with 11.5 points per game. Buettner was proud of the way both of them handled starting as true freshmen and found ways to continue to be leaders despite being so young.
“It’s hard for freshmen, and by the end of the year, we had a couple freshmen at the top of the scout,” said Buettner. “We didn’t do a whole lot in the weight room in the preseason, knowing that these guys were going to have big roles. We didn’t want to wear them out. To have that bullseye on your back that like Dan and Marcus did by the end of the year, from most of the years, that’s tough. Not many freshmen are going to do that, especially at the DII level. So, for those guys to stick with it, and keep getting better, was huge.”
The growth that both have showed in practice as they prep for their second second in Black and Gold has Buettner very excited.
“The biggest thing now is they don’t look quite like skinny little boys anymore,” Buettner said. “They’re starting to look like men. They both put on ten to 15 pounds of muscle, and just the mental and the confidence part of it. Both of them now know what to expect in the league. They have some confidence, at the end, that they’ve had some big games. They played against the best. They played in a championship game. They’re not going to be phased by what they see in the league.”
In Gherezgher, Buettner admitted that he and his staff asked a lot of true freshman in running the offense last season, but he felt the Brookfield, Wisconsin, native developed into a point guard by working hard to learn and understand what the coaching staff wanted from him.
“A lot of the process with Dan was him just maturing, practicing better, paying attention to the scout, getting everything on time, school, and doing all those things,” said Buettner. “Once we got that stuff, then we really started getting into the reads and how to be a point guard.
“Dan’s a quiet kid, and you’re asking a freshman that’s finding himself to be your quarterback, be your leader. He’s never going to be the most vocal, but this fall in practice, he’s a point guard. He’s making the right reads. He’s making the right passes. He’s still going to have the plays that are going to wow you. He’s stronger now. He’s going to dunk on a couple of guys this year, and have some takes to the basket that are just, wow.”
Then-sophomore guard Adam Hobson was third on the Huskies in scoring at 10.0 points per game. He was joined by classmate Pete Calcaterra, who broke out with 12 points in a win over Lake Superior State on Jan. 28, and then rattled off double figures in scoring six of the final 10 games of the season, including a season-high 22 in a win over Purdue Northwest on Feb. 16.
Buettner feels that Pete has a chance to be an even bigger part of the offense this season.
“Pete brings a level of, I mean, he’s a mismatch when he’s at the five,” said Buettner. “He’s athletic (enough) to play the four. He can do so many things.
When he gets himself to a consistent (level), where it’s every single game, he’s at the highest level. He could really be a force. I mean, he can shoot it. He can put it down. He can move. He’s athletic. He can really help us.”
Pete’s younger brother Alex has joined the Huskies as a freshman this season, part of a class of five who are already pushing the Huskies’ returners in a good way, according to their coach.
Add to that mix guard Drew Barrie and forward Peyton LaCombe, and Buettner is excited about the depth the Huskies have.
“The two kids that redshirted last year, I think, could both in the mix,” he said. “Drew and Peyton both show signs of really helping us, and hopefully it’s this year, and, in the future, they will for sure. The true freshman, I think several of them are redshirt.
“Matt Schmainda is just a Tech kid. I mean, he’s just hard-nosed, and I feel like he’s going to be in the mix. Gabe Smith shows us some things that we don’t have, just with his length and his knack. He’s a different type of player, but brings us an element that we don’t necessarily have.”
The Huskies only graduated two players from last year’s team, one of which played while the other missed the entire season with an injury. Buettner feels he has the type of problem coaches want to have.
“I’m naming four new guys when we lost one last year that actually played minutes,” Buettner said. “We’re sitting here every day after practice figuring out who’s going to play, and we have some options. It’s been really competitive in practice.
“Right now it’s the good problem. It’s better to have too many options than not enough.”
One more player who could have a larger role this season is Houghton native Brad Simonsen. The junior forward, who is in his fourth season with the Huskies, saw more playing time last year, averaging 14.9 minutes per game, and he scored 6.0 points per game as a result. Buettner likes what he has seen of the way Simonsen work in practice.
“Brad’s had a really good preseason so far,” Buettner said. “We’re trying to keep it simplified for an offense. He’s a knockdown shooter. (We are telling him), ‘Brad, hunt your shot. Hunt your shot. Hunt your shot, and keep your confidence.’
“I think that’s his biggest thing. If he misses a shot, or makes a mistake, he gets down on himself. We’re really working at that. So, he’s been better at it. He’s been playing well and excited for him this year.”
Buettner wants to see his team grow this season, and prove that it deserves to be discussed in the same circles as the higher-end teams who finish in the top half of the conference.
“We finished eighth last year, so we need to get better,” he said. “We need to execute better. We need to be better.
“There’s not going to be an easy game in the league. That’s always been the case with Michigan Tech. I feel like when we’re ourselves, we can beat everybody. But, I know this, if we don’t come to play, we can lose to anybody in this league on any given night.”
At this point, before they have played a game, Buettner feels that his entire roster could play on any given night. He and his staff are looking for players to separate themselves from their teammates through their effort level and their play.
“Everybody has so much room for growth,” he said. “We come in here every night after practice and write down who would be playing today. Overall, it’s changing a lot. There’s not a lot of difference between one and 15 right now, and that’s good and bad. But, we keep preaching consistency, and separate yourself. Do the little things, get the extra rebound, be a stud defensively, run the floor, separate yourself so that we have to play you.”