KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With upgrades in athleticism and depth, Fort Hays State men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson believes two areas of weakness from last year could turn into strengths for the Tigers this season.
“I think the two things that stand out for us — we have more guys and our bench will be better, and our athleticism and physicality is greatly improved,” said Johnson, who enters his 18th season at FHSU with a record of 341-161. “Washburn especially, there were a few teams we played during the MIAA season that athletically and physicality wise, we were having a hard time matching up with them.
“I feel like this year we can put a team out there if we want to at times that can be as athletic and physical as any team in the MIAA. I think it makes us a little more versatile this year.”
The Tigers finished in the middle of the MIAA last season, placing seventh in the standings with a 10-9 record in conference play and an overall mark of 19-12. They knocked off Missouri Southern in overtime in the quarterfinals of the MIAA Tournament before falling to Washburn in the semifinals.
Johnson said the Tigers’ biggest question mark will be finding a go-to scorer to replace Hadley Gillum, who averaged 16.8 points per game last year as a senior.
“I feel like we have more pieces to work with this season, but who’s that guy that can go get you 17 to 18 a night and a guy you can count on every night to carry you through, especially late in games?” Johnson said. “I think that’s what we’re going to be figuring out as we start up here. Do we have that guy?”
Senior forward and Hays High product Brady Werth is one of the top candidates to be that go-to guy after averaging 12.7 points last year.
“You look at Brady, he had a good season going and then he got sick and he missed (four games),” Johnson said. “But when he came back and got fully healthy his last 11 games, he averaged 15 a night. You hope maybe you can carry that over from the end of last year and he can do that all this coming year."
Another option could be senior guard Marcus Cooper, who averaged 8.6 points per game and saw his production rise down the stretch. Senior starting guards Trey O'Neil and Kyler Kinnamon are also back for the Tigers.
Other seniors for the Tigers include Grant Holmes and Calvin Harrington, with both seeing significant time off the bench last season. Six-foot-7 Freddy Bitondo joins the Tigers after transferring from Sam Houston State.
Juniors Aaron Nicholson and Payton Stephens also played a key role as reserves last year, as did Thomas More Prep-Marian product Jared Vitztum, who started six games last year as a redshirt freshman.
“I saw a couple guys that were really starting to play well down at the end of the season,” Johnson said. “Hopefully they can just hit the ground running here. Brady Werth is obviously a big part of that. Marcus Cooper had a nice finish to the season. I think Kyler Kinnamon right now in the fall is a guy that you can see is playing with a little bit more confidence.
"Probably Jared Vitztum and Aaron Nicholson had as good of preseason as anybody on the team. I think they’re markedly improved."
Hays High grad Isaiah Nunnery will be a sophomore and Nyjee Wright will see time at point guard after redshirting his first year out of high school. Other additions include junior transfer Devin Davis from Allen Hancock College in California and true freshman Gilbert Peters, who led Montezuma-South Gray to a Class 1A Division I state championship and undefeated season last season.
Johnson said he expects the Tigers to have a better scoring punch overall.
“We really feel like we have more pieces this year and more guys that can contribute and maybe not have to just throw it to one guy all the time,” Johnson said. “We will have multiple guys out there that will be able to do some things.”
The Tigers' season opener is set for Nov. 9 against the University of Sioux Falls in Marshall, Minn. The first home game is Nov. 17 against Colorado School of Mines.