Tigers at home to face Bearcats
By CONOR NICHOLL
Several times a year, Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson will issue a phrase about the Tigers' next game. After Saturday's home win against Missouri Southern State University, Johnson quickly used his familiar saying for Wednesday's home contest versus Northwest Missouri State University.
"Biggest game of the year," Johnson said.
The Tigers, on a three-game winning streak, stand at 13-6 overall, 7-4 MIAA. Northwest Missouri is one of the teams ahead of FHSU in the standings at 15-5, 8-3 MIAA. Game time is 5:30 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
Because of the pod system this winter, FHSU will play Northwest twice in a week; this Wednesday, then next Wednesday in Maryville, Mo. Fort Hays is 1-3 against teams above them in the standings.
"Twice we have said 'hey, that's the biggest game of the year,' " Johnson said. "I think we are now on our third biggest game of the year. This Wednesday, we have got to find a way to beat Northwest."
A win this Wednesday would allow for at least a season split for the Tigers against the Bearcats and help keep FHSU in the running for a top-four seed and first-round bye into the MIAA tournament.
"As your season goes on, every game just gets magnified and every game becomes more and more important, and now we are down to seven games to go and every game becomes more important than the game that we just played," Johnson said.
Fort Hays, 2-0 on a four-game homestand that stretches through Saturday, doesn't change much for the year's biggest games.
"I think we take more of a business-like approach in every game that we play," Johnson said. "I think you are just trying to get that point across to your team that your focus has to really be there, your concentration level has to be really there, understand that every possession takes on the significance of what it means to be in a big game.
"I don't know if you bring in any more emotion to it or intensity to it," he added. "I just think it's more about the focus and paying attention to detail."
Northwest Missouri, an NCAA tournament team last season, has had injuries to arguably its two biggest players: junior forward Dillon Starzl and senior point guard DeShaun Cooper. Cooper is redshirting the season because of a knee problem, while Starzl, the team's leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, has missed the last two contests because of a medial collateral ligament sprain. NWMSU has won four of its last five, including the last two by one point each. The Bearcats trailed by 20 before rebounding to beat Northeastern (Okla.) State University 73-72 and then defeated Emporia State University 52-51 Saturday. The Hornets had several chances in the final seconds to possibly win the game.
"They've got a bunch of tough kids," Johnson said. "They play hard. They get after you. They play pretty smart. They are not putting a ton of points on the board."
The Tigers are averaging 76.4 points per game and have four players in double figures. Since Fort Hays switched to the MIAA before the 2006-07 season, only the 2010-11 team has averaged more than 77 a contest. On Monday, freshman point guard Craig Nicholson earned MIAA Player of the Week honors for the second time this year. In two contests, he averaged 15 points, 11 assists and 2.5 rebounds. His 7.3 assists per game remains on pace to set the Tiger all-time single season record.
"He deserves a lot of credit, he is doing a great job, but you have got to be playing with guys that can make a lot of shots," Johnson said. "You make those passes and you throw it to guys who miss, you don't get those assists."
FHSU continues to receive strong production from supplementary players, including juniors Carson Konrade and Marty Wendel and senior center Rundell Mauge. Konrade has battled a thigh injury and has struggled some mentally this year, but responded with 18 points Saturday.
"I do need to improve (my mental game) and not worry about things, just shake it off and just keep playing and not think so much," Konrade said.
Mauge and Wendel's production go farther than what shows up in the box score. Mauge, who starts, collected six points, five rebounds and two blocks and remained out of foul trouble. He sets solid screens, plays well on defense, runs the floor well for a 7-footer, and when he goes to the high post, allows FHSU some offensive flexibility. Wendel, a reserve, has played well on defense.
"Rundell is not a guy who needs to get 10 points and 10 rebounds to make a significant impact on the game," Johnson said. "Some guys, their stats are their stats. That's the contribution they are making to their team is the stats they put in."