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Host of newcomers for Tiger men

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Mark Johnson had some legwork complete when he signed freshman guard Craig Nicholson and junior guard Carson Konrade in the early signing period last year.

However, Johnson, entering his 12th season as Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach, and veteran assistant Jeremy Brown had plenty of recruiting to do. Fort Hays graduated six seniors and overhauled nearly its entire roster for the 2012-13 season.

"It was hectic obviously trying to fill a lot of different roster spots," Johnson said. "Really needing virtually every position, we needed someone to come in. Feel good about the group we have. They are working hard. Hopefully over time, we get our pieces together."

Still, the roster shuffling has continued for Fort Hays.

Junior Tomislav Gabric, a junior guard who transferred from Palm Beach State (Fla.) Community College, is ineligible for the year because of a transfer issue.

Junior guard Andrew Victoria, a pickup from Butler County Community College, is likely out four to six weeks because of a knee injury.

Fort Hays, 19-9 and 12-8 in the MIAA last season, opens the year Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum against McPherson College, a NAIA Final Four team from last year. Game time is 4:30 p.m.

"We do have a lot of new guys," senior guard Ben Congiusta said. "I think it's maybe taken us a little while to get used to each other, to get used to what we are trying to do as far as on the court. Off the court, everyone has clicked really well, everyone has got along really well."

The new group has played well in three scrimmages, holding each opponent to less than 52 points.

"Hopefully over time, we will get our pieces together, we can be a much bigger team, maybe a better defensive team," Johnson said.

Fort Hays returns just two players who have seen significant playing time in the program in senior guards Lance Russell and Congiusta. Russell missed nearly all of the season two years because of a foot injury. Congiusta was a reserve three winters ago, started two years ago and redshirted last year because of a shoulder injury.

"You look at Ben, he is just playing with a different level of confidence," Johnson said.

"The more responsibility, the better," Congiusta added. "I think that's more fun."

In 2010-11, Congiusta played strong defense, averaged 6.1 points per contest and shot 37 percent from 3-point range and started all 33 contests. Last year, Russell averaged 6.6 points per contest and played 19 minutes a game.

"Lance is playing with a different mindset than his previous time here, just being a senior, being back in the program, playing with a different confidence level about themselves," Johnson said. "We have to see much more production from those two, not so much from a defensive standpoint. Ben was always a good defender ... but just an offensive production standpoint, you are going to be able to see a much different type of individual out there."

Nicholson, from Wichita Northwest, will start at point guard and will likely be counted on more than any freshman in Johnson's tenure. Nicholson is willing to push the ball and Johnson believes the team could be playing at a quicker tempo than in the past. Johnson believes the team could be most effective offensively in transition off rebounds and turnovers.

Konrade and junior guard Nick Capiti can drive and slash effectively to the basket, finish plays and get other players shots. Senior Jason Ball, a veteran reserve from Hays High School, is an effective 3-point shooter. A question mark is the backup point guard; likely Congiusta will take over when Nicholson needs a rest.

In the post, junior forward Dwayne Brunson and senior center Rundell Mauge are 6-foot-7 and 7-foot, respectively, and provide plenty of size. Junior Marty Wendel is 6-6 provides some length, too.

"Even though we are a lot bigger than we have been, probably a big concern is rebounding," Johnson said. "I don't know how well we rebound. Dwayne is a really good rebounder, but that is where Marty can come in and really help us."