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Ben Smith

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Courtesy Indiana Tech
Antonio Cannon, who stands 5-foot-10, jumps center for Indiana Tech, an undersized team with a 20-7 record.

Undersized Tech keeps on winning

– This is your father’s basketball team, as it turns out. The guy who jumps center scrapes the sky at 5-foot-10. The center himself was a small forward last year and a shooting guard in high school. And the coach …

Well. The coach is over here, showing you the redwoods of yore.

“Look at this,” says Indiana Tech men’s coach Al Grushkin, pointing at last year’s team photo. “That’s our roster last year. Chris Ware (6-8) is in Romania. Rodney (Bartholomew, also 6-8) is in the D-League.”

Now he’s pointing at 6-4 1/2 Melvin Brooks, who’s still around.

“Melvin’s our center now,” Grushkin says. “He was our fifth-biggest player last year.”

And, welcome, everyone to 1965 or so. This is Wayback Machine Tech, where the past is not yet past. It’s Throwback U., where the coach is a hoops lifer who has been everywhere – even worked for NBA scouting guru Marty Blake – and has seen everything.

OK. So maybe not everything.

The other night, for instance, he looked out on the floor and there was Antonio Cannon, all 5-10 of him, jumping center against some 6-9 Clydesdale from Lourdes.

“It just looked funny,” Grushkin said.

Feels funny, too, Cannon says. But in a good way.

“Yeah, they look me up and down to see how small I am,” says Cannon, whose leaping ability has prompted Tech to try to get him into the NCAA dunk contest. “But I like it.”

They all like it. With Northwest Ohio coming in today for the Coaches vs. Cancer game, Tech stands 20-7. Take away a three-game dip in January, and they’d likely already be an at-large shoo-in for the NAIA tournament.

“We were 14-3, and then at Northwest Ohio we had three guys get hurt, and we physically couldn’t practice come Monday,” Grushkin says. “And we had Cornerstone and Davenport coming up. …

“I think we’ve got to pull three out of our next four to get into the national tournament. And if we get into the national tournament, these kids have done something, boy.”

It would seem so. No one here set out to be the Smallville Five; last summer, the Warriors lost a 6-8 recruit to the military and another 6-6 transfer flunked his physical. And so Grushkin had to junk the high-low offense he has always favored.

“Suddenly we had no high and no low,” is how he puts it.

Things have worked out, though. The Warriors have gotten it done with a defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and field goal defense, and in the top 20, amazingly, in blocked shots. They’re also second in the nation in turnover margin.

Cannon, a senior out of Indianapolis Northwest who dunked for the first time when he was in eighth grade, is averaging 14.1 points and has 32 steals this year. Brooks, the erstwhile off guard, went for 27 points and 17 rebounds in each of his first two games as a center (“I thought, ‘Ah, I might like this,’ ” he said) and leads Tech in scoring and rebounding. And 6-2 point guard Jordan Hickman is second on the team in rebounding and has 94 assists, 33 steals and – yes – 16 blocks.

“We have to play a lot harder than last year, because we had Chris and Rod inside,” Hickman says. “They could just dominate teams at times. This year we can’t do that.”

No, sir. This year, a 5-10 kid jumps center. A not-quite 6-5 kid plays center. And Hickman, the point guard, has guarded every position on the floor at times.

“Yeah, even my high school team was a lot bigger than this team,” he says.

Whose wasn’t?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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