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SPOTLIGHT
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Tigers picked fourth, sixth in MIAA polls

Published on -10/24/2012, 11:21 AM

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By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

One mantra Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson likes to follow is his Tiger teams are never "finished products." Each season, Johnson wants his team playing better basketball in late January and February than in November.

This season, Johnson will have his most inexperienced squad of a 12-year tenure that has delivered a 226-98 career record and five NCAA tournament appearances. Fort Hays returns just four Tigers, including two players in senior guards Lance Russell and Ben Congiusta, who have seen significant playing time.

"That is going to be definitely a true statement this year," Johnson said during MIAA men's basketball Media Day on Tuesday. "We are going to have to go through some growing pains to get to where we want to be. I feel like our guys are working hard and trying to get better everyday."

Last year, Fort Hays finished 19-9 overall and 12-8 in the MIAA for fifth place.

In the coaches' poll, the Tigers were picked to tie for fourth place with Pittsburg State University in the new-look 15-team conference. In the media poll, FHSU tied for sixth with Lindenwood (Mo.) University. Washburn University is picked No. 1 in both polls.

The MIAA moved to 15 teams this season, adding Lindenwood, University of Nebraska-Kearney, University of Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State University for basketball.

Instead of the normal home-and-home conference schedule, the MIAA will switch to an unbalanced pod system this winter. Fort Hays will play only certain teams, such as Northwest Missouri State University, Missouri Western State University Nebraska-Kearney and Washburn, twice. Fort Hays opens the regular season at home against McPherson College on Nov. 10.

"An improved league off a year ago. I think adding the teams has only made it stronger," Johnson said. "With the pod system, it will be interesting to see, not everybody playing the same schedule, how that affects the standings, but I think every game will be a challenge."

With so few returners, Johnson said the team still has to figure out what style the Tigers will play at.

"Do we need to play uptempo, do we need to slow it down, do we need to play big, do we need to play small?" Johnson said. "Those are things from a coaching staff, we are probably not going to know until games are played."

Overall, though, Johnson has enjoyed the group. Last year's team was arguably the most frustrating and difficult season in his successful tenure.

"They are a good group to be around," Johnson said. "Everybody is buying in. Everybody is an unselfish guy. I think our team chemistry will come around fairly quickly because of the people we have."

Conguista and Russell are entering their fourth and third year in the program and are expected to produce big seasons.

In 2010-11, Russell took a medical redshirt because of a foot injury. He averaged 6.6 points per game in a reserve role last winter.

Congiusta started two seasons ago and was a strong defender and 3-point shooter. Then, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before the 2011-12 year began and took a redshirt. Johnson called Congiusta probably one of the most improved players in his tenure.

"He is just playing with a different quickness level," Johnson said.

"Playing with a different confidence level. ... Having the injury was a big blow to us last year, but probably might have been the best thing that happened to him. I know it was tough to go through, but I think it's made him a better player, a year older and just the confidence is real high."

Among the returners, Johnson expects freshman Craig Nicholson to play significantly at point guard. While some other freshmen, namely Corbin Kuntzsch, have been contributors as freshmen, Johnson said Nicholson may be counted on more than any freshman he has ever had

This year's team has more size than last season with 7-foot senior center Rundell Mauge, a transfer from NCAA Division I Pacific University, 6-8 junior forward Andrew Victoria and 6-7 junior forward Dwayne Brunson. Junior guards Nick Capiti and Carson Konrade, also transfers, will likely see significant time.

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