Like most college basketball teams early in the season, Fort Hays State coach Mark Johnson says his Tigers are farther along on the defensive end than offensively with two regular-season games under their belts.
Fort Hays opened its campaign with a pair of wins in Arkansas last weekend, beating Arkansas Tech 88-78 before grinding out a 58-53 win over Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Johnson said the Tigers will need to stay sharp defensively and make strides on offense as they continue an early-season road swing with two games in Colorado. FHSU will face No. 14-ranked Colorado School of Mines at 4 p.m. (3 p.m. Central) on Saturday in Golden, Colo., before playing at UC-Colorado Springs at 4 p.m. (3 p.m. Central) on Sunday.
“We’ve got to continue to guard like we did (last weekend),” Johnson said. “These teams will be a little different. They won’t be quite as athletic as what we faced but their skill set is going to be a little bit higher. When you have breakdowns, they’re going to make you pay and hit the shot.
“Then we need to just find a way to shoot the ball better. We feel like we’re a good shooting team. We’ve really shot the ball well in practice but did not shoot the ball very well (in Arkansas). We’re going to have to make more shots than we did this past weekend."
Against SWOSU, the Tigers shot just 38% from the field but made up for it by holding the Bulldogs to 29.8% (17 of 57) from the floor.
“The first game we were playing really good offense, we were playing really physical down low,” junior forward Jared Vitztum said of the Arkansas Tech game. “We could really just kind of get where ever we wanted if we were playing hard and tough.
"The second game was just kind of a test for us. We were playing a really physical team and a team that really got after us. We just kind of had to lock in defensively. That’s the biggest takeaway from (last weekend), we just have to play really hard and it’s based on defense.”
Johnson agreed that SWOSU's defensive style provided a good test for the Tigers.
“Big thing was I thought our guys played really hard for two games, really battled,” he said. “That’s what we had to do against Southwestern Oklahoma. They might be as tough defensively as any team we play ... Obviously we need to improve offensively, but I think if you ask any coach this time of year, your defense is ahead of your offense and that’s definitely the case for us right now."
The returners led the way last weekend, with Vitztum, Nyjee Wright and Aaron Nicholson each averaging 12 points over the first two games.
“That’s what you have to have early in the year — your returners have to really kind of carry the load because your new guys are still trying to figure out what they need to be doing and your system,” Johnson said. “Your new guys aren’t quite as confident as your returners are. I thought all the returners did a really nice job.”
“(The returners) have all played together so the chemistry is really good,” Vitztum said. “It’s kind of nice for everybody to get going early in the season.”
Wright put up a career-high 22 points in the opener before being held to two points the next night against SWOSU.
"He’s a highly-skilled person. We’ve got to keep him aggressive," Johnson said. "Sometimes Nyjee’s weakness is that he’s not aggressive enough. I thought the first game out he did a great job. Second game, Southwest Oklahoma keyed on him and knew how important he was to our team and did a good job on him. He’s got to be able to continue to have good nights even with that kind of defense on him. But we expect really good things from Nyjee this year.”
The Tigers got a boost from 6-foot-6, 265-pound redshirt freshman Gilbert Peters in the first game. The Montezuma-South Gray product recorded a double-double in his debut, chipping in 14 points and 11 rebounds against Arkansas Tech.
“Gilbert, he’s a big-bodied kid and he’s a better athlete than people think,” Johnson said. “He’s not necessarily, right now, going to be tremendous on the low block — throw it to him, make offensive moves and score. But just his body, he’s hard to get around. He did a great job on the glass and getting a lot offensive rebounds against Arkansas Tech. If he seals his man, he’s hard to get around and can finish."
Overall, Johnson said he was pleased with the contributions of the newcomers last weekend. Senior forward Jake Hutchings, a Chaminade transfer, scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the SWOSU win, and Johnson said junior guard Perry Carroll (Allen County) and junior forward Jackson Miller (Coffeyville Community College) also gave the Tigers good minutes.
“I thought when they got their opportunities, they did fine,” Johnson said of the newcomers. “They’re going to get more opportunities as we move forward here. But I thought for their first weekend, they did a nice job.”
The Tigers' last three games against Colorado Mines have gone down to the wire. FHSU won 75-71 in double-overtime against Mines last year after falling 109-101 in double overtime to the Orediggers in 2017 and losing 70-67 at the buzzer in 2016.
“Colorado Mines, they’ve always been able to shoot it well,” Vitztum said. “We just need to play really good defense and we have to get out to their shooters a little bit more than we did this last weekend.”
The Orediggers enter 1-1, dropping their season-opener 85-84 to St. Mary's in overtime before bounding back with a 75-47 win over Lubbock Christian.
UC-Colorado Springs is 2-0 with wins over Midwestern State (69-61) and Cameron (90-62).