Tiger men off to solid MIAA start, hit the road
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Mark Johnson issued a quick warning to his Fort Hays State University men's basketball team after a non-conference 85-60 win against South Dakota School of Mines on Saturday.
"Preseason polls mean nothing," Johnson said.
That statement again holds true in the MIAA, long known for its top-to-bottom strength. Fort Hays started slowly, but has won six straight to move to 8-2 (2-0 MIAA).
"A brand-new team and we just had to get used to each other," freshman point guard Craig Nicholson said. "Those were games that we should have won, but it was just little mistakes just here and there, but now the more we practice and the more we play, we just get used to each other and it gets easier for us."
In the 15-team league, FHSU is one of six undefeated squads in conference play, one of four at 2-0.
The Tigers were tied for fourth in the preseason coaches' poll, and already own a win against University of Central Missouri, ranked No. 2 in the preseason conference poll.
"I think this is what makes this league so strong every year," Johnson said. "Your league, it's not always about the top level of your teams. It's the depth of quality of your teams and that's what the MIAA is."
One of the 2-0 teams is Northeastern (Okla.) State University, a MIAA newcomer that was picked No. 14 in the preseason. The Riverhawks, 9-1 overall, will play host to the Tigers on Thursday in Tahlequah, Okla. Game time is 5:30 p.m.
Then, Fort Hays will travel to Emporia State University (5-4, 0-2 MIAA) on Saturday.
"The road trip is going to be long, but we are going to be ready to play," Nicholson said.
Johnson believes both teams, especially Northeastern, will be strong enough to finish in the top-five; ESU stood tenth in the preseason.
"We are going to have go on the road and play as good of basketball as we have all year if we want to have success," Johnson said. "I think if we do that, then we are capable of doing that, good things can happen for us."
Northeastern State has already surpassed last season's win total from a 5-21 record. However, coach Larry Gipson is 254-180 in his career with Northeastern State, including a national championship in 2002-03. He led Northeastern Oklahoma A&M to a junior college national crown in 1989. His younger brother, Randy, is the women's head basketball coach at Northeastern State, the only brother duo in America to coach the same sports of different genders.
Junior point guard Bryton Hobbs averages 16.6 points and has 4.9 assists, both team-highs, while senior forward Jermaine Bransford tacks on 15.6 points and a team-best 8.3 rebounds. Bransford is the reigning MIAA Player of the Week.
"They are good," Johnson said. "I have watched them multiple times. Got a great big guy and have got a great point guard. Kind of important positions to have pretty talented players and a coach that has won multiple national championships."
Junior forward Dwayne Brunson averages 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest, all team-highs. Brunson and senior center Rundell Mauge (five blocks against Mines, 20 for the season) have played strong in the low post.
"We had some breakdowns, but that's why it's so important to have those guys to go chase the ball," Johnson said. "A lot of times, those blocks lead to transition baskets for us."
Senior guard Ben Congiusta averages 13.5 points and shoots 48.3 percent from the 3-point line. Congiusta has continued his strong defense, including a strong game against Mines. Congiusta held A.J. Trennepohl to 2-of-11 shooting. Trennepohl sunk his first two shots.
"Sometimes you might have a real quick guy that might give you some problems, but if you have a guy who you just run him off screens, run him off screens and he is a great shooter, Ben is as good as there is about just staying with it, and dogging it and not letting him get open," Johnson said.
Nicholson ranks first in the league in assists (6.9).
"I thought I was going to just come off the bench and preseason, I have just been working my butt off," Nicholson said. "I have just been doing everything I can to help the team out."
In the last three games, he has a 24/3 assist/turnover ratio and statistically, easily ranks as the conference's top freshmen.
"I am really big on assists," Nicholson said. "Since I've got a bunch of guys who can score around me, I don't have to do it all by myself, so I am just looking to get my teammates involved first, and if they are not involved, then I will do something to help the team out."