Another tough test for Tiger men

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Coach Mark Johnson has said several times the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team probably overscheduled in the non-conference season. Plus, the Tigers have had a difficult early-season slate of MIAA matchups for Johnson's most inexperienced team in 12 years as head coach.

This weekend, the schedule remains difficult with a road contest against much improved Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Goodwell, Okla. The Aggies are 4-5 and have already won more games than they did last year -- one of several teams FHSU has played this winter that has improved from last season.

Fort Hays enters at 5-2 and on a three-game winning streak, including two key conference victories in the last week at home against University of Central Missouri and on the road versus Missouri Western State University.

Panhandle has played in multiple high-scoring games and has outscored squads by an average margin of 85-82. In its last game, Panhandle lost to NCAA Division I University of Wyoming 74-55 on the road, but the contest was tied at 49 with 10 minutes. 50 seconds left. Seven Aggies average between 9.1 and 12.2 points per contest.

This marks the Tigers' first game in a week because of finals.

After Saturday, Fort Hays concludes the first semester with a home game Monday against NAIA Sterling College.

"You've got finals and a lot of guys haven't been home since the summertime, so they are looking forward to going and seeing their families," Johnson said. "...Sometimes you can lose focus, because they are already thinking about going home, instead of what's at hand, and that's the big challenge."

Johnson said a 7-2 record (2-0 MIAA) in first semester would be solid considering opponents and the Tigers' lack of experience.

"I think with 10 new guys, you would have to be fairly content with what we have done," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday.

Junior Dwayne Brunson and senior Lance Russell, each sick in last Saturday's overtime win against Missouri Western, lead the team with 16.1 points and 13.7 points, respectively.

"I think we are playing much better right now than we were even at Newman," Johnson said of an 80-78 road loss on Nov. 24.

Freshman point guard Craig Nicholson continues to play at a high level and averages 12.4 points and 6.4 assists a contest. Nicholson, the Tigers' lone primary ballhander, ranks No. 17 nationally and second among freshmen in assists per game.

"Without Craig, we can't drive the ball," Brunson said. "Most of our guys, they are getting the hang of it. They are learning. It's just confidence."