Much like every other season, there are a couple of teams atop the MIAA men’s basketball standings that have set themselves apart a bit from the rest of the pack.
Then of course, there are one or two teams at the bottom of the standings that have limped through a rough season and are struggling to gain momentum.
Then, there are those teams right in the middle — like Fort Hays State University — that are right in the thick of things when it comes to positioning themselves for a run in the conference’s postseason tournament.
That sets the tone for the Tigers’ road trip this week, beginning with Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. tilt against Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
“Just like every year, there’s everyone fighting to get in the top four, then in the top eight to get a home game if you have to play the play-in game,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said.
A pair of wins this week on a Missouri swing could go a long way in keeping the Tigers in position to be in the top four — if the Tigers land there that would include a first-round bye in the MIAA tourney. A pair of losses, however, could knock FHSU back into a spot where they are fighting just to finish in the top eight and get a home game for the first round.
“These games can get you real healthy in a hurry or it can keep you down,” Johnson said. “Both these teams (Lincoln and Lindenwood) are starting to hit their stride a little bit, and we have to be ready to play much better defensively than we did against Northwest Missouri.”
Getting healthy, not just in the standings, is key for FHSU right now. The Tigers enter this week with four key players either not performing at all or not at 100 percent. Junior center Brady Werth enters his second week not likely to play with illness, while juniors Kyler Kinnamon, Trey O’Neil and sophomore Payton Stephens all are still ailing from ankle injuries.
The Tigers, though, understand what’s at stake in the road trip, and are up to the task. Sophomore Aaron Nicholson is one of the guys who has stepped up in the wake of injury after injury. He made his third start in Saturday’s 72-67 home loss to No. 2 ranked Northwest Missouri State University, a rare loss inside Gross Memorial Coliseum for FHSU.
“It’s critical for us to get these two on the road,” Nicholson said. “We need to guard a little better. Get our defense rolling, and we’ll be fine.”
The Tigers sit in sixth place in the conference standings at 12-6 overall and 5-4 in league play, just a half game back of fourth place, while Thursday’s opponent Lincoln is charging from the bottom at 9-10 and 3-7. Saturday’s opponent — Lindenwood — sits right behind the Tigers at 5-5.
Taking away the pressure from must-wins at home, Johnson said, hopefully sees the Tigers play more relaxed and take advantage of an opportunity to maintain ground in the top half.
“You can’t lose at home,” Johnson said. “Go on the road, hopefully a little more relaxed, and hopefully understand these are great opportunities to gain some ground and hopefully move up in the standings.”
Lincoln will present an exact opposite challenge to what the Tigers faced in Northwest Missouri — arguably the largest lineup FHSU has faced and will face all season. Lincoln is a high-flying team that likes to shoot the 3-pointer, and does it well.
The Blue Tigers have attempted the second-most 3s in the conference at 440, but have also made the second-most 3s, hitting nearly 42 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’m up to the challenge,” said Nicholson, who looks to start for the fourth time this week. “I take pride in my defense, and I’m hoping the team is up to the challenge as well.”
Lincoln’s John Burton is one of those shooters to look out for. He leads the MIAA with 63 3-pointers made and leads the Blue Tigers with just more than 14 points per game.
“They’re a scary bunch,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do a good job with our ball screens and handle that and try to keep those guys contained.”
FHSU, without Werth, counters with the multi-scoring ability of senior Hadley Gillum, whose average is now at 17.7 points.