There’s no easing into the regular season for the Fort Hays State men’s basketball team, with two tough tests awaiting the Tigers in the MIAA-NSIC Challenge this weekend in Marshall, Minn. 

The Tigers will open the season against Sioux Falls at 4 p.m. Friday before taking on Southwest Minnesota State at 4 p.m. on Saturday. 

“I think the biggest difference in the last four or five years is we started these exempt tournaments, so the competition level the opening weekend is a lot harder than it used to be,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “I don’t know if you’re ever truly ready for the level of competition you’re playing, but I think our guys are ready to play games and get out there against other people.

“These are teams we’re familiar with; we’ve played them the last three years. Tough tests, really good teams.” 

Sioux Falls is coming off a 20-win season while Southwest Minnesota notched 25 wins a year ago and reached the second round of the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament. SMSU is ranked No. 20 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and No. 14 by D2 Bulletin. 

“Southwest Minnesota is really, really good," Johnson said. "In their exhibition game they made eighteen of twenty-six threes, but Sioux Falls the night before is probably more talented and could be the better of the two,” Johnson said. “These two games are extremely difficult. Going away from home, it will be a huge challenge for us.”

Sioux Falls is led by guard Trevon Evans and 6-foot-9 forward Drew Guebert. Evans averaged 21.1 points last year while Guebert scored 19.9 per game. Southwest Minnesota is paced by Ryan Bruggeman, who averaged 16.8 points last year. 

“They got some really talented offensive players, that’s for sure,” FHSU senior point guard Kyler Kinnamon said. “Every single year that we’ve played these teams it’s pretty much come down to the wire in both games. They’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of returners, so it will be a tough matchup.”

Kinnamon said he likes the fact the Tigers will be tested right away. 

“I think that’s good for us to learn a lot about ourselves in the first couple games and kind of see how our season might go,” he said. “It just gives us a lot of things to build on as well.”

The returning cast for the Tigers is led by 6-foot-7 senior forward Brady Werth, who averaged 12.7 points as a junior. 

“We expect Brady to be one of the better big guys in the conference,” Johnson said. “He’s been injured, missed pretty much all of preseason practice, official practice, except for the last week or so. But he’ll be really good.”

Johnson said he expects redshirt sophomore and TMP-Marian product Jared Vitztum to be one of the Tigers’ most improved players. 

“Jared has improved his body and has shot the ball extremely, extremely, well.  I think he’s your prototypical stretch four in today’s game,” Johnson said. 

The Tigers return four starters — Kinnamon, Werth, Marcus Cooper and Trey O’Neil — off last year’s team that went 19-12. 

“We’ve changed some things offensively a little bit, so even though we have a lot of guys back they’re all kind of together in learning a few things,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to open up the floor a little bit more now that Hadley (Gillum) is gone and give more room to Brady in the post and give our perimeter players more room to operate and more driving lanes for them. We hope that will make a difference.”

Emporia State will be the other MIAA team in Marshall this weekend. The Hornets will face SMSU on Friday and Sioux Falls on Saturday with 6 p.m. tip-offs. 

FHSU WOMEN START AT HOME 

After two encouraging tune-ups, the Fort Hays State women will start the regular season with a pair of home games this weekend. 

The Tigers will face Southwest Minnesota State at 7 p.m. Friday before taking on Upper Iowa at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Gross Memorial Coliseum. 

Fort Hays took both Kansas and Kansas State to the wire in exhibition games, falling to 90-83 in overtime to KU and 48-46 to K-State. 

“I think it gave us a little bit of experience when we were down (late) and how valuable every possession is,” FHSU senior point guard Carly Heim said. “I think it also gave us confidence in knowing that every game is different, because we have so many guards and we have so many scorers that someone might light it up one game and then it will be someone different for the next game.”

The Tigers, picked second in the MIAA preseason coaches and media polls, return 11 letter winners including four All-MIAA selections in Heim, Tatyana Legette, Kacey Kennett and Lanie Page. FHSU went 26-7 last year before falling to eventual national champion Central Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament. 

"We created a lot of chemistry playing together last year and it's nice to have the same chemistry and kind of build on that every day and every game," Heim said. "I think that helps us out a lot when we're competing in practice, training the younger ones and getting them better by giving them your best."

Southwest Minnesota went 5-27 last season while Upper Iowa was just 2-27 a year ago. 

MIAA foe Missouri Western will also make the trip to Hays, facing Upper Iowa at 5 p.m. on Friday and SMSU at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.