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Tiger men look to finish strong

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

NCAA Division II has 19 teams with three or fewer losses, according to masseyratings.com. None are in the Central Region, which consists of the MIAA, Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Great American Conference.

The GAC is a weaker league and will likely earn just one NCAA tournament berth through an automatic bid.

The MIAA and Northern Sun should collect the other seven regional spots. The MIAA has its usual top-to-bottom strength, while the NSIC has a strong upper half. Northwest Missouri State University leads the MIAA at 13-2, but lost four times in non-conference play.

NWSU and Fort Hays State University (19-4, 10-4 MIAA) are two of seven MIAA/NSIC teams with four or five losses. Barring massive changes, one of those could earn the regional host bid.

With five regular season games and four at home, Tiger coach Mark Johnson believes FHSU still has a small chance to host.

"We would have to probably go 5-0, and then win the conference tournament," Johnson said Thursday afternoon. "But if we did that, I think that could be a possibility."

FHSU's immediate goal is securing a top-four seed in the MIAA standings and a first-round bye to the conference tournament. Northwest Missouri is first, followed by University of Central Missouri (12-3), FHSU and Missouri Southern State University (10-4).

The Tigers are 0-3 against those squads. University of Central Oklahoma is fifth at 9-6 -- Fort Hays defeated UCO and will face both UCO and Washburn (8-7) again before the regular season closes.

"Central Oklahoma is a dangerous team," Johnson said. "That's going to be a big game for us. If we can put ourselves in a position where we have got a bye to Kansas City - 4-1 is probably what we are going to have to do worst case. If we take care of that, those other things might be there for us."

On Saturday, the Tigers, after a week off, play host to Pittsburg State University (7-14, 3-11 MIAA) in a 4 p.m. start at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

"We can't get comfortable knowing that it's our home," senior forward Dwayne Brunson said. "Thinking that teams are just going to roll over and give us the win. We have got to be more hungry, and we got to come out ready to play when we are at home knowing our fans don't want to come out and see us lose."

A win gives FHSU a 20-4 record and Johnson his eighth 20-win season in 13 years, breaking the school record. Pittsburg State has had trouble winning close games. Johnson said the Gorillas could easily be 8-6. On the other hand, if FHSU didn't have any breaks, Johnson believed FHSU could be 5-9.

On Jan. 25, FHSU won at PSU, 78-75. Fort Hays has won five straight against the Gorillas in Hays. Devon Branch leads the Gorillas with 20.7 points per contest.

"Every game, we take it very seriously, because the game could go either way," Brunson said. "If we don't come out and play, we know we could lose."

Senior guard Carson Konrade, hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in practice, has improved. Junior reserve forward Jared Tadlock will miss Saturday's contest to attend his grandmother's funeral.

Tadlock provided another 3-point option versus a zone-heavy Gorilla defense.

FHSU is 8-3 in road contests, the most road wins among MIAA teams.

"It doesn't matter if it's home or away," Johnson said. "I think our focus has been pretty good most games. I think Kearney (a road loss Feb. 5) has been the one game this year where we weren't into it like we needed to be."

The Tigers have an average road score of 82.3-75.2. In home contests, FHSU has an average score of 88.6-75.5.

In the 14-team MIAA, Fort Hays has the fifth-smallest difference in scoring offense between home/road. It's the league's smallest home/road difference in scoring defense. In Johnson's eyes, FHSU had trouble closing home contests.

"It's a testament to our guys," Johnson said. "It's not easy to go on the road and play games. I don't think they have let that bother them. At the same time, I wish we were playing a little better at home than we have. We need to do better the last four home games than maybe we have done previously."