Tigers prepare for UCO
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Mark Johnson believes the Central Region has several lines of demarcation. The top five teams are close together in the rankings. Then, there's a gap. Johnson's Fort Hays State University men's basketball team, again ranked No. 6 in the newest poll released Wednesday, and Arkansas Tech University at No. 7, are close. Then, there's another gap between eight through 10.
Top eight in each region reach the NCAA Division II tournament. The bracket is unveiled Sunday night. Fort Hays, 22-6 overall and 20-6 against NCAA Division II opponents, has been No. 6 since the rankings came out three weeks ago.
But FHSU can assure a spot in the 64-team field by winning the conference tournament this weekend and not letting a team currently ranked outside of the top eight steal an automatic bid.
On Friday, Fort Hays, the No. 4 seed, plays No. 5 seed University of Central Oklahoma (18-9) in the MIAA conference tournament quarterfinals. Start time is 8:15 p.m. at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
"I don't feel like there is any team at eight or nine or 10 that could come up and get us without winning the tournament," Johnson said Wednesday. "I don't know how much we can advance, and I don't know how much we can fall."
For FHSU to win, Johnson believes the Tigers will have to score at least in the high 70s, possibly 80s. UCO senior forward Josh Gibbs collected first team all-league honors at 21.1 points and 11.4 rebounds a contest.
"They are another great team," senior guard Carson Konrade said. "They are a great offensive team. We've just got to come and take it one game at a time. Try to win it all, and then we don't have to worry about it. Hopefully, we can string together a couple of wins here in Kansas City, and be all right."
Tiger point guard Craig Nicholson, a first team all-MIAA selection, has been hampered by a groin injury and hasn't practiced this week. Johnson said the Tigers have been cautious with the injury, but it continues to bother the sophomore.
"If he stays hurt, obviously that's a problem, but if he gets healthy, it might be a blessing for us in the fact that he has logged a lot of minutes," Johnson said. "We've committed to sitting him this week and getting him rest and getting him fresh legs. He needs to get better than he is right now, that's for sure."
In all-league voting released Tuesday, Nicholson and Northwest Missouri State University point guard DeShaun Cooper, the eventual Player of the Year, were the only two unanimous selections. Nicholson leads the team with 17.7 points, 7.5 assists and a school record 185 made foul shots.
FHSU has defeated UCO twice this season, both in the final seconds.
"I am sure Central Oklahoma feels the same way -- we stole them," Johnson said.
On Jan. 16, the Tigers won 101-97 in overtime on the road. Last Wednesday, FHSU collected an 80-79 win when Nicholson made a layup with 1.6 seconds left.
"He is a great leader," Konrade said. "We look to him when it comes down to the end."
In the first meeting, the Tigers trailed by nine with three minutes to go. In the second contest, FHSU was down eight with three minutes remaining.
Nicholson had problems with his groin at the tail end of last year and then it bothered him last Wednesday. On Thursday, Nicholson felt pain and then hurt it again just before halftime in last Friday's loss to Northeastern (Okla.) State University. Nicholson tried to play the second half, but wasn't the same.
"When Craig was hurt in the second half proves that Craig is probably the most valuable player in the league," Johnson said. "But I also believe that you've got to reward teams for winning their league, and DeShaun Cooper deserves to win it, because they got first, and we got fourth."
Last season, the Tigers won the MIAA, advanced to the conference tournament semifinals, but didn't qualify mainly because of two non-conference losses and an 0-3 record against Washburn University and Northeastern (Okla.) State University, teams directly below them in the standings. Johnson called missing the NCAAs "very disappointing" last year.
"We are still on the bubble," Johnson said of this year. "That's what this level is, that's what this region is. It's not going to change. We've just got to control what we can control."
This winter, FHSU went 9-0 in non-conference and owns a road win against Missouri Southern State University, currently third in the region. But Fort Hays is hurt by a strength of schedule that includes three non-conference wins against teams that finished with single-digit victories.
The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Great American Conference also form the Central Region. The GAC is a weaker league, while the NSIC is very top-heavy.
"A lot of good records," Johnson said of the NSIC. "In the MIAA, we are just a well-balanced, deep conference."
Fort Hays is 5-2 in the first round of the MIAA tournament, a bracket that's often seen upsets, including several No. 8 seeds over No. 1. Overall, the Tigers are 8-6 in the MIAA tournament under Johnson, including a title three years ago. This winter, the MIAA split into two divisions for basketball and the west had seeds 4-9.
"Probably doesn't shine any brighter this year, the five, six, seven and eight seed is probably the best that it's ever been," Johnson said.