Fort Hays State University men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson had essentially one thing in mind when he hit the recruiting trail after last season’s 18-11 campaign that ended with an 11-8 mark in the MIAA and quarterfinal exit from the conference postseason tournament.
He wanted the Tigers to be bigger.
But not necessarily in the way some might think.
The Tiger coach, entering his 17th year at the helm, wanted to bulk up FHSU’s backcourt, so that’s what they did — along with adding more athleticism.
“We weren’t very athletic last year, compared to our competition,” Johnson said. “Our biggest weakness at times last year was we had no size on the perimeter.
“People could just shoot over us a times.”
The Tigers brought in three junior transfer guards, all of whom stand upwards of 6-foot-2, to add to a mix of a solid returning group that features just one senior in Hadley Gillum.
Gillum, the Tigers’ top returning scorer, leads FHSU into today’s 2 p.m. exhibition against Kansas State University at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan.
The Tigers return seven players who saw time a year ago, headlined by Gillum, and all seven are from Kansas in Trey O’Neil (Scott City), Brady Werth (Hays), Aaron Nicholson (Derby), Gillum (Plainville), Grant Holmes (Beloit), Payton Stephens (McPherson) and Kyler Kinnamon (McPherson). In addition, redshirt freshmen Isaiah Nunnery and Jared Vitztum could see the floor this season.
At least early on, though, FHSU likely will turn to Gillum for scoring. FHSU graduated All-American Rob Davis, who more-or-less put the team on his back for any success it had in 2016-17.
Gillum had a breakout year of sorts, though, as a junior. He scored 13.5 points per night behind Davis’ 21.4. He also led the team with 6.4 rebounds per outing.
“Hadley has developed into a really good offensive power forward,” Johnson said. “Trey O’Neil also is playing with a little more confidence then he did his first two years.”
O’Neill scored seven points per night and grabbed 3.1 rebounds as a sophomore.
In addition, the coach said, Kinnamon has been solid and Werth will step into the 5 spot.
“He’s a little more sure of himself,” Johnson said of the Hays High School product.
The Tigers’ transfer class includes Calvin Harrington, a 6-4 guard from Northeast (Neb.) Community College, Keshawn Wilson, a 6-2 guard from Southwestern (Iowa) Community College, and Marcus Cooper, a 6-foot-3 guard from Northeastern (Colo.) Junior College.
Also, true freshman Nyjee Wright, from Derby, likely will step into a big role right away.
“How quickly that happens is really going to be a big factor in our success,” Johnson said. “It’s can we get any of those new guys to have it happen for the team right away?”
After today’s meeting, FHSU will face University of Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 7. The regular season begins Nov. 10 and 11 in Emporia with games against Southwest Minnesota State and Sioux Falls.
The Tigers’ first four games also includes a trip to Colorado School of Mines, an Elite Eight team a year ago.
“We’re playing two top teams in the country that basically have all their lineups back,” Johnson said. “Be a big challenge to see if we’re ready for that kind of competition.”
The Tigers were picked to finish seventh in the MIAA in the coaches poll released last week. MIAA play begins Nov. 30 in Hays against Missouri Southern State University, the team that bounced the Tigers from the MIAA Tournament last season.