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Tigers, Mules set to resume rivalry

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University junior guard Carson Konrade is one of 10 new players for the Tiger men's basketball team. Konrade, a Spearville graduate by way of Colby Community College, knows little of the FHSU versus University of Central Missouri matchup.

The teams have been the class of the MIAA for the past six years. At least one team consistently resides in the national rankings. After last Wednesday's non-conference victory against Central Christian College, Konrade and his teammates received a quick history lesson from Tiger coach Mark Johnson.

"He said they are a rivalry," Konrade said.

On Wednesday, Fort Hays and Central Missouri resumes with a 7:30 p.m. matchup at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Fort Hays is 3-2, while Central Missouri, which tied for the conference championship last year, is 4-1 this season. The contest is the MIAA opener for both squads, and because of the unbalanced schedule, the one time FHSU and Central Missouri will play each other this winter.

Central Missouri has won 19 games in nine straight seasons, the longest active streak in the MIAA. Fort Hays has won at least 19 contests the last five years.

"I think we have a lot of respect for their program and their players and Coach (Kim) Anderson does a great job," Johnson said. "You like to measure yourself against the best teams in the league, and I think year in and year out, they are one of those teams, and I think that will be the case against this year."

The contest opens a brutal first half of the conference season for the Tigers. Fort Hays plays six of its first nine games on the road. Two of the three home contests come against Washburn University, ranked No. 2 in the country, and Central Missourl.

"I can't imagine any team in the league having a more challenging first half of conference schedule than Fort Hays," Johnson said.

With the multiple ramifications riding on Wednesday -- a rare home game, first conference contest of the year, and the lone time FHSU plays Central -- Johnson has had to walk what he labeled "a fine line." Johnson wants his team to understand the importance of the game, but the season still has 17 league games remaining.

"Understanding the importance of the game and not overvaluing the situation," Johnson said. "I think, for us, we are going to catch their best shot, because they have had a week off also. It's the first conference game. It's seems like everybody gets rejuvenated after you have gone through a little bit of your non-conference."

Fort Hays is 3-0 against NAIA teams and 0-2 versus Division II foes with close losses to Northwestern Oklahoma State and Newman University, two teams that are stronger than what the Tigers usually plays in non-league. Johnson is uncertain how much playing stronger squads has helped his team.

"I go back and forth on that," Johnson said. "Sometimes I wonder how much stock that you really have when people say you need to play tough competition in non-conference. I don't how much that carries over."

"I would much rather have a team be undefeated and confident and feel good about themselves and buying into what you are doing," he added. "At the same time, though, I would say this year, we have probably identified our weaknesses at an earlier standpoint than maybe other years."

One key for the Tigers is junior forward Dwayne Brunson and senior forward Rundell Mauge need to stay out of foul trouble. Brunson leads the team with 17.4 points and nine rebounds, while Mauge has 6.2 rebounds and a team-high 12 blocks. Brunson and Mauge have picked up some quick fouls in some contests. Without them, the Tigers lack some on both ends of the floor and become a much smaller team.

"Rundell is a big man and we like to have him in there, because he takes up space, he alters shots," Konrade said. "He does a great job at both of those, and Dwayne, also. They are really important at being there. We need them in there as much as we can."

Central Missouri returns two all-MIAA performers from its 19-8 team in second team pick Dominique Long and honorable mention selection Widgett Washington. Long leads the team with 13.6 points per contest.

"I would think they would be as talented as anybody in the league," Johnson said. "They are very athletic. They have got size, big-bodied kids. Really, they have eight lettermen back who have played in the program. They've added a couple of guys to go with them. They are an experienced team."