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Tigers at Jayhawks on Tuesday

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team faced little defensive pressure from NAIA Bethel College in the season-opening exhibition contest last Wednesday. The Tigers shot 52 percent from the field and 3-point line, had multiple open looks and easy chances en route to a 94-68 victory versus the overmatched Threshers at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

"There wasn't a lot of great pressure and strength and athleticism out there," coach Mark Johnson said. "We were able to get into gaps."

On Tuesday, FHSU goes to the polar opposite when it travels to Allen Fieldhouse and faces the University of Kansas for the second exhibition contest. Start time is 7 p.m. FHSU is receiving votes in the NCAA Division II preseason poll, while KU stands fifth in the preseason Division I rankings. Most telling, Johnson will be able to see his team battle through difficult situations and play against tough competition.

"If we can handle it next week, not turn it over a whole lot and be strong with the ball, not let their pressure get to us, and then maybe that will be a sign that we can do these things in a normal game," Johnson said. "We need these guys to play just the way that they did. Obviously, it's not going to be quite as easy."

Johnson, long a defensive-minded coach, has stressed defense to a team that returned three of its top six players from a MIAA regular season championship squad.

"We need to defend better and rebound better," junior transfer guard James Fleming said. "If we do that, then we are going to be real good."

Fort Hays has had several big men in the last couple of years that have produced shot blocking and rebounding, including Dijon Smith, Ken Bowman, Matt Simmons and Rundell Mauge. This year, hobbled senior forward Andrew Victoria is the team's biggest player at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds. Junior transfer Jared Tadlock is the team's tallest at 6-9, but weighs just 215 pounds.

Senior Dwayne Brunson (6-7, 220) was the starter inside versus Bethel after he earned first team all-MIAA last season and led the squad with 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 60 blocks. Mauge was second with 56 blocks and helped hold teams to 43 percent shooting on 2-point shots (FHSU was 52 percent on 2-point shots). Fort Hays was plus-1.8 on the glass last season, but went 12-3 when it won/tied the rebounding battle, 8-5 when it didn't.

"We are not going to have that presence at the goal and I think a very big concern," Johnson said. " Defense is a big concern for us, but I think even more than that, rebounding is probably the biggest question mark and concern that I have going into the year for us. Can we rebound the basketball?"

One possibility to help is sophomore forward Jake Stoppel at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. Fleming and Stoppel, from Wilson, were the Tigers' two new starters. Last year, they played against each other when Fleming was at Fort Scott Community College and Stoppel played for Neosho County Community College.

"He is a good guy, he is going to hustle and crash the glass," Fleming said. "He is going to give us points inside."

Stoppel, whose dad, Dave, was a former Tiger standout, collected six points and six rebounds. He tied for the team-high in rebounds and paced the Tigers with four offensive boards, including several putbacks.

"He is one of those guys that can be a little more mobile and guard a lot of multiple positions," Johnson said. "At our level, sometimes your 4 man (power forward) is just a big guard. I think he allows us to be able to step out on the floor and guard some perimeter-oriented guys. He needs to be for us, right now, especially this year, he needs to be an energy guy and an execution guy, and find his offense through energy and things like that."

At the guards, FHSU is talented, but is small with sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, backup junior transfer Achoki Moikobu, senior Carson Konrade and Fleming. Junior guard Tomislav Gabric (6-6, 185) is the team's lone big guard.

"Tom has to be out there because of size," Johnson said.

Senior guard Nick Capiti was a backup last season, but will redshirt in a numbers game with Nicholson, Moikobu, Konrade and Fleming. Capiti is allowed to play Tuesday. Freshman forward Drew Kite, from Scott City, will likely redshirt, too.

"He is just on the edge there," Johnson said of Gabric. "He is just an excitable person. That's his personality. At times, he can get going too fast, and he needs to just slow down."