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Game looms large for Tiger men

2/25/2014

By CONOR NICHOLL

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Wednesday's home contest between Fort Hays State University and University of Central Oklahoma holds massive ramifications for the Tigers in multiple areas, including a top-four seed and first-round bye to the conference tournament, and a possible tiebreaker for an NCAA Division II tournament at-large berth.

"This is as big as it gets," coach Mark Johnson said.

Fort Hays, receiving votes in the national poll and No. 6 in the Central Region, stands at 21-5, 12-5 MIAA. UCO is 17-7, 11-6 MIAA. Start time is 7:30 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The contest is the penultimate game of the regular season. FHSU will conclude the regular season when it plays host to Northeastern State (Okla.) University on Friday night.

The Tigers are fourth in the league behind Northwest Missouri State University (15-2), University of Central Missouri (14-3), and Missouri Southern State University (13-4). UCO stands fifth.

The Tigers don't have the tiebreaker over the top two squads, but do against Missouri Southern.

However, the Lions finish with Lindenwood (Mo.) University and Lincoln (Mo.) University, currently 11th and last in the 14-team league.

"I don't know if Southern is going to lose again," Johnson said.

FHSU defeated the Bronchos, 101-97 in overtime, on Jan. 16 in Edmond, Okla. The first MIAA tiebreaker is head-to-head, while the second is "best win."

If FHSU loses to UCO and is tied with the Bronchos after Friday, the Tigers would drop to fifth in the league and the Bronchos would be fourth and earn the bye.

"If we ended up tying, they would win the tiebreaker based off their win against Northwest Missouri," Johnson said. "If we ended up both being tied, we would slide down to the fifth seed and have to play a play-in game."

As long as FHSU and UCO are No. 4 and No. 5 in some fashion, they could meet up again in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament next week in Kansas City, Mo.

In the Central Region, Missouri Southern, Northwest Missouri, Central Missouri and Fort Hays hold spots three through six, respectively. Top-eight make the NCAA field, though three automatic qualifiers are awarded to the winners of the three conference tournaments that form the Central Region.

"Southern, Northwest and Central are ahead of us, and I don't know if we can catch them for the NCAA tournament," Johnson said. "I think we are more in battles with other teams, but there is one MIAA team that could be the fourth team besides us, and that's Central Oklahoma."

If FHSU were to lose Wednesday, drop to the fifth seed, and then lose to UCO again at Kansas City, the Bronchos would win the season series against the Tigers -- an important barometer for the NCAA tournament.

But if Fort Hays wins Wednesday, it would win the season series regardless of what happens next week.

"We can put that to bed saying, 'That's going to be Fort Hays State' barring upsets in the (conference) tournament," Johnson said.

UCO forward Josh Gibbs stands second in the MIAA and No. 25 nationally at 20.9 points per contest. He also is eighth nationally and the MIAA's best with 11.3 rebounds a game. Sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson paces the Tigers with 17.6 points and has 7.5 assists, sixth-best nationally.

Wednesday and Friday also concludes MIAA's divisional play for basketball this season, a different setup than normal. The west division has yielded significantly more depth than the east. The west accounts for teams 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13 in the standings. The east has 1,2,3,10,11,12 and 14.

"This divisional play, they have three really good teams, but this side is just unbelievable with the depth on our side," Johnson said. "Every team that we play in this division, we are pretty much the same. It's going to come down to the end and see who gets lucky and who makes the plays."