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Tigers control their MIAA fate

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Coach Mark Johnson has enjoyed tremendous success with his Fort Hays State University men's basketball program, including five straight top-five MIAA finishes and two runner-up showings. The Tigers also won the MIAA conference tournament title in 2010-11.

Still, Fort Hays has won one regular season conference championship under Johnson, a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title in 2005-06. Even when the Tigers had a great team in the MIAA, another team -- usually University of Central Missouri or Missouri Southern State University -- was better.

Fort Hays stands at 15-6 overall, 9-4 MIAA with five games left. FHSU is tied with University of Central Missouri at 9-4 and Washburn University is a half-game back at 8-4. But the Tigers hold tiebreaker versus the Mules and have another contest versus Washburn.

The top seven teams are within one game. The Tigers, on a five-game winning streak, are the lone team that controls their own destiny. If FHSU wins out, it wins the league.

"Our league is as jumbled up as it's ever been," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday. "Five games ago, we were 4-4, and I don't know if that put us into eighth or ninth place.

"Five games later, you are tied for first and it's going to continue here for the last five games, 5-0, 4-1, you have a chance to win the regular season conference championship," he added. "You go 3-2, you might get seventh. Again, it's probably going to come down to the last week of the year. Right now, we are right there."

After four straight home games, the Tigers have their final three road games. Last week, Fort Hays faced Northwest Missouri State University and University of Nebraska-Kearney at home. This week, the Tigers travel to Northwest Missouri (15-7, 8-5 MIAA) on Wednesday and UNK on Saturday.

"We are going to be prepared for that," freshman point guard Craig Nicholson said. "We are going to do the same thing that we did last game. I know they are going to have a good game for us, but we are just going to have to come out and play hard."

In the 59-58 home win against Northwest Missouri, the Tigers committed 19 turnovers against the league's No. 1 defense. NWMSU likes to slow the game down and then score off turnovers in transition. However, Fort Hays had several errant passes that went far out of bounds. That forced the Bearcats to inbound the ball, rather than playing uptempo after a turnover.

"One of the biggest factors in the game, this may sound crazy, but when we did turn it over, we turned it over so bad that they couldn't fast break," Johnson said. "Those 19 turnovers, they only had two fast break points. Normally when you turn it over, they steal it and go down and lay it in. That only happened one time."

Several reasons have caused the close conference race, including the usual MIAA parity, the league expanding to 15 teams and injuries to multiple top players. The conference usually is strong top to bottom.

"Our middle of the pack is always been the best middle of the pack of any conference in the country," Johnson said. "I think now you add Lindenwood, Northeastern and Central Oklahoma, that just adds to the quality of your league. Our teams that favor towards the bottom have gotten better and I think probably our top teams have had injuries."

Washburn, Central Missouri, Pittsburg State and Northwest Missouri -- all teams in the top-eight -- have at least one top player that's been hurt or not played for a significant stretch. Fort Hays has had some injuries, especially with juniors Carson Konrade and Andrew Victoria. Konrade, bothered for several weeks with a thigh injury, is back at full strength and has three straight double figure contests. Fort Hays is 7-0 when Konrade, who averages nine points a game, scores in double figures.

"It makes a big difference in our team, him scoring," Johnson said.

Plus, the league now stretches into four states because of expansion. In past years, only the outliers, Truman State (Mo.) University on the east and Fort Hays on the west, had long, four-day road trips. Now, every team has at least one.

"Central Missouri, they to go to Central Oklahoma and to Missouri Southern on the same trip," Johnson said. "You look at Lindenwood, to Northeastern and to Emporia. I think people are starting to figure out that it's not all that it cracks up to be. It's a factor, especially if you don't do it very often."