Johnson collects Coach of the Year honors
Published on -3/5/2013, 10:11 AM
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Mark Johnson has had some veteran teams in his 12-year head coaching career with the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team.
Two years ago, the Tigers, led by senior All-American point guard Dominique Jones and senior Corbin Kuntzsch, defeated Midwestern State (Tex.) University, an eventual NCAA Division II Elite Eight team, in the season opener. FHSU went 26-7 that winter and won the MIAA postseason conference tournament.
"We were going to improve, but we were already close to our ceiling," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday.
This season, though, Johnson had 10 new players and returned less than 10 points a game from last winter's 19-9 team.
In the preseason, the Tigers were picked fourth in coaches' poll and sixth in the media poll. Then Fort Hays started 2-2 with a home loss to Northwestern Oklahoma State University and a road defeat to Newman University. It marked the first time FHSU lost twice in the non-conference since '06-07, Johnson's only losing season.
But the Tigers, paced by junior forward Dwayne Brunson, a first-year transfer from Barton Community College, and freshman point guard Craig Nicholson, continually improved. FHSU finished the regular season 19-7 and won the league with a 13-5 record, the program's first MIAA regular season conference championship.
On Monday, Johnson earned MIAA Coach of the Year honors and Nicholson collected Freshman of the Year and second team all-league. Brunson was named to the first team, while seniors Ben Congiusta and Lance Russell picked up honorable mention.
Fort Hays next will play Emporia State University in the postseason conference tournament Thursday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo. Game time is noon.
"We were going to get better as the year went on," Johnson said. "These guys want to do well, and they work hard every day. Very rarely have we came to practice not prepared to practice. It's been a good group toward doing that."
Johnson collected his third coach of the year honors, second time in the MIAA. He shared the award with University of Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson in '09-10.
Nicholson and Raymond Lee are the only two freshmen of the year honorees in Tiger annals; Lee won it in 1982-83. Nicholson's 7.0 assists per game are on pace to break Lee's school record of 6.6 set in 82-83. Brunson led the team with 15.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 55 blocks.
"Really unselfish team," Johnson said. "Worked hard every day, very coachable team, and I am glad that they were the group that got to be able to win the regular season championship."
The Tigers continually improved as the year went along and went 9-1 in their final 10 games. Johnson said he was most proud the squad didn't have any "bad losses." In non-conference, Northwest Oklahoma State finished 15-11 and tied for first in the Great America Conference. Newman finished 20-6 in the Heartland Conference and has been a top-25 team nearly all year. In league play, FHSU lost three road games and one home contest, none to a team that finished worse than seventh in the 15-team MIAA.
The team had three quality wins, the conference opener against Central Missouri and then two wins in one week versus Northwest Missouri State University. The second one, a 64-60 road win Feb. 13, helped turn the tide.
"Offensively, we just started figuring it out," Johnson said. "I thought we were moving much better. Making reads much better. That's been a struggle for our team all year at times, just making reads. For whatever reason, it just seemed like that game, it all together."
Against the league's No. 1 ranked defense, FHSU shot 44 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range.
"Obviously, sometimes throughout the year there is gradual improvement and improvement and improvement and improvement, and it seems like one game, it all kind of comes together and I think it did for us there," Johnson said. "We just started playing better, and it was a great win."