A new-look Fort Hays State men's basketball team will make its debut in an exhibition against the University of Kansas at 7 p.m. Thursday at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Tigers, who went 18-11 last year with a fourth-place finish in the MIAA, have six returners and eight newcomers.
Seniors Aaron Nicholson and Devin Davis, junior Jared Vitztum and sophomore Nyjee Wright are back for the Tigers, along with two players who redshirted last year — senior Calvin Harrington and freshman Gilbert Peters.
“I think almost all of our returners will be a big part of our team,” 19-year FHSU coach Mark Johnson said earlier this month at MIAA Media Day.
Nicholson, a 5-9 guard, is the Tigers' leading returning scorer after averaging nine points last year, while Wright, a 5-10 guard, added 4.8 points off the bench.
“Nyjee Wright has got himself in the best physical condition he’s been in since he’s been at Fort Hays," Johnson said. "Really, the guy that we kind of thought and hoped he could be, he’s developing that. He’ll be one of our main guys in the backcourt.
"Aaron Nicholson is obviously our leading returning scorer, a fifth-year senior. I think you're expecting really good things from him."
Davis was a key weapon off the bench last year, scoring 8.6 a game.
“It was a big loss for us when he got hurt and couldn’t play in the conference tournament, because he had a really nice finish to the season,” Johnson said. “He’s probably lost 15 pounds, put himself in even better shape. But he’s still physical and though as there is.”
The Tigers will be looking for big things from Vitztum, the 6-foot-7 TMP-Marian product. The junior forward put up 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds last year.
“I think he can play better than he did last year, but you sit there and look at last year, he did average seven points and five rebounds as a sophomore — that’s pretty good,” Johnson said. “I think he looks better. He’s gained weight. He’s playing with more confidence. I think he looks quicker off the bounce than he ever has in his career. We’re hoping he makes a jump.”
Johnson said he expects Harrington, a 6-4 guard, to play a key role with the Tigers after redshirting last year. Harrington played 11 minutes per game off the bench for the Tigers in 2017-18. Six-foot-six forward Gilbert Peters, who led Montezuma-South Gray to a state championship as a senior in high school, will see action after also redshirting last year.
“Calvin Harrington is a guy that we’re counting on this season," Johnson said. "Calvin gives us good size at the guard position. He shoots it well and he’s a great executor of what you want offensively and defensively. He’s going to be in the right spots.
“Gilbert’s 280 pounds, we need that body out there at times, especially when you’re playing the Cam Martins of the world," said Johnson, mentioning Missouri Southern's big man.
The Tigers brought in two junior college transfers that will enter the mix in the backcourt — Ottawa product Perry Carroll (Allen County) and St. Louis native Alvin Thompson (Cloud County).
"(Carroll) had a really good career at Allen County — 5-11 guard that we think can be a contributor,” Johnson said. “Alvin Thompson is a player from Cloud County, first-team all-league, all-region. Gives a little more athleticism in the backcourt. He’ll be in the mix."
Senior forward Jake Hutchings transferred to Fort Hays after playing a prominent role off the bench for Division II Chaminade (Hawaii) last year, averaging 7 points and 2.1 rebounds.
“Jake Hutchings is a guy we’re really counting on," Johnson said. "Chaminade had a very good season last year, made the NCAA tournament. Just watching, might have had the best front line in all of Division II, and he was in that mix playing with those guys.
“He’s a 6-7 kid. He’s really what today's four-man is — shoots 3s, more of a skilled perimeter type player. Jared and Jake are going to have to carry the load up front a lot. I think a big key to our season is how well those two can shoot the ball from three. If they can shoot 40 percent or better from three, that’s going to open up the floor for our guards and make it hard to guard.”
Bjarni Jonnson, a 6-7 freshman from Iceland, is also expected to make an early impact.
“Really athletic as far as speed and quickness,” Johnson said. “Not necessarily a high flyer, but just energy, effort and toughness. Defensively, it’s nice to be able to put a kid out there with that kind of energy and quickness."
Without a proven low-post scorer, Johnson said the Tigers offense could be more perimeter-based with big men that are outside shooting threats.
“It’ll be a lot different,” he said. “We’ve been a very physical team; I don’t know how physical we’ll be. It is the modern game. The thing that worries you is can you get enough easy baskets? The game is about how many easy baskets you can get and how many you can prevent the other team from getting. That’s the big unknown for us right now. We’re not going to be able to throw it inside and have a guy turn like Brady (Werth) did last year and score, or they come double team and everybody stands there and gets wide-open threes.
“Can we get enough easy baskets, and in the last five minutes of a game, where’s the ball need to go for us to be successful? Those are things we’ll hopefully find out.”
The Tigers and Jayhawks last met in an exhibition in November of 2017. KU pulled away in the second half for an 86-57 victory.
The game will be available to purchase for viewing on ESPN+ (WatchESPN) or Big 12 Now.
Fort Hays will open its regular season Nov. 8-9 in Russellville, Ark., facing Arkansas Tech and Southwestern Oklahoma State.