Tigers look to keep momentum going at Washburn
By CONOR NICHOLL
The best way to quantify a team's offensive quality is through points per possession, a statistic that combines points, field goal attempts, turnovers, offensive rebounds, free throws and total possessions. The statistic, brought into the mainstream by well-known statistician Ken Pomeroy, also shows the true measure of the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team.
The Tigers, with three games left in the regular season, remain in first place in the MIAA at 17-6, 11-4 in league play. FHSU is tied with University of Central Missouri, but holds the tiebreaker. Fort Hays has come close, but has never won an MIAA regular-season crown under coach Mark Johnson.
Part of the reason is an efficient offense that ranks third in the league in conference-only games at 1.096 points per possession. The strong offense has helped Fort Hays avoid any bad losses in a tightly packed league. No squad is ranked in the top 25 nationally, but the top eight teams are within two games. FHSU is 8-0 against the bottom seven teams in the league.
"We have got some guys that are good players," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday. "I think at times, though, individually we might not be the most overwhelming team, but I think really when you put us together from an offensive standpoint, we just kind of fit."
However, Fort Hays likely needs to improve defensively this Saturday in a critical contest at Washburn University (17-6, 10-5 MIAA). Game time is 7 p.m. at Lee Arena in Topeka. FHSU lost to Washburn, then ranked No. 13 in NCAA Division II, 70-69 on Jan. 10 in Hays. If it wins, Washburn will take the season tiebreaker and make it more difficult for the Tigers to win the league.
From an NCAA Tournament perspective, the Tigers need to remain near the top of MIAA standings. Fort Hays stood eighth in the first Central Region rankings released Wednesday. UCM was the only other MIAA team in the poll and ranked sixth. The top eight in each region make the regional tournament.
"The thing that we have got to continue to do is to take good shots, and we have got to find a way to improve defensively a little bit," Johnson said. "I still don't think that we play the defense to the level that we need to if you want to win a conference championship."
The Tigers stand seventh in the 15-team league in conference-only games in points allowed per possession (1.024). Washburn stands second in offense (1.101) and fourth in defense (1.018).
"Getting here late, if we can find a way to guard a little better than we have, I think that will put us in a very good position," Johnson said.
Ichabod senior Will McNeill is second in the league at 18.2 points per contest, while senior point guard Martin Mitchell averages 14.8 points a game. Johnson said McNeill and Mitchell "might be" the best backcourt in the league.
"Martin Mitchell has had a great year," Johnson said. "I know William McNeill gets all the publicity, and rightfully so, but I think Martin Mitchell has really stepped up and has had a tremendous year. Then, I think they have got some size inside. ... It's going to be a hard game, but if we shoot the ball well, then we are going to have an opportunity to win."
Washburn, ranked No. 2 earlier in the season, has slipped from the rankings in the latest poll. The Ichabods lost just once before Jan. 16, but have four defeats since, including losses to Truman State (Mo.) University and Missouri Western State University, teams that stand in the MIAA's bottom four. Last week, they lost at Northwest Missouri State University, 63-61.
"They are playing really hard right now, I think they are a big, physical team," Johnson said. "Probably feel like they let one get away there at Northwest. Really controlled the game, the entire game."
Last week, FHSU bumped its winning streak to seven games with key road wins at Northwest Missouri and University of Nebraska-Kearney. Junior forward Dwayne Brunson leads the team with 15.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 51 blocks in his first year after transferring from Barton County Community College.
"You watch him, at times, he may not wow you," Johnson said. "He doesn't have tremendous back to the basket moves. He doesn't really put it on the floor. He is athletic, but he is not real athletic side to side type of the deal. But then the game is over, and you go get the stat sheet, and he has put up a lot of numbers to help you win the game."
Brunson collected 35 points, the most by a Tiger since 1998 and the most in the Johnson era, in Saturday's 82-70 victory versus UNK. He earned MIAA Player of the Week honors. Brunson paces a team that has five players, including freshman point guard Craig Nicholson, seniors Lance Russell and Ben Congiusta and junior Carson Konrade, average at least 8.7 points per contest.
"Dwayne is about the best 15 to 17 foot shooter that I have been around," Johnson said. "He doesn't miss very often. We were able to run some ball screens, and they were pulling pretty hard and trapping pretty hard and hedging on those ball screens and it left him fairly open on the backside over and over and over.
Fort Hays averages 67.2 possessions per game in league play, but averages 73.7 points per contest because of an offense that ranks first in shooting percentage (47.8), 3-point field goal percentage (40.7) and free throw percentage (79.9). (Lindenwood (Mo.) University leads the conference in scoring offense, but ranks seventh in points per possession because it plays at a faster pace than the Tigers).
Fort Hays' overall free throw percentage mark of 75.9 percent is on pace to break the school mark of 74.7 percent set in 1969-70.
"You have got some guys, Carson and Ben, that can shoot the basketball," Johnson said. "You have got Craig that can really do a lot of stuff off the bounce to help those guys get shots. I think Lance at 6-5 has shot the ball well, plus he can handle it just well enough with his size to get to the basket.
"You look at Dwayne's ability to shoot 15 to 17 footers," he added. "You pull us apart, we are probably not the most overwhelming team when you look at other teams in our league, but you put us together, I think offensively we kind of go together and play well."