The 2020-21 Fort Hays State men’s basketball team will feature several players trying to get acclimated to college basketball as fast as they can in a year unlike any other.
FHSU has four true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and three sophomores on its roster.
"I would say by far this is the youngest team I’ve had in my whole time here," said Fort Hays coach Mark Johnson, entering his 20th year as FHSU head coach.
However, the Tigers also have a strong leadership candidate in fifth-year senior Jared Vitztum, who is coming off a breakthrough junior season.
"I definitely feel like I’ve got to have a little bit more of a leadership role on this team since we do have a lot of younger guys and a couple guys that redshirted last year," Vitztum said. "I feel like I need to have a good leadership role and obviously keep scoring the ball.
"I’ve really got to improve on the defensive side of the ball; that’s a team thing and an individual thing. We didn’t play very good defense last year, so that’s really our main focus, for sure."
Vitztum averaged 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds last season. The Thomas More Prep-Marian product earned third-team All-MIAA honors.
"He had a really good year last year and I think he’s even better this year," Johnson said. "I think he’s driving the ball and playing with more confidence this preseason than a year ago. We expect Jared to have a really good year, and we’re going to have to play through him quite a lot."
VItztum shot lights-out from the perimeter last year, hitting at a 51% clip from 3.
"It’s something I’ve worked on throughout my career and really tried to gain confidence in," Vitztum said. "The coaches have really instilled confidence. A lot of it is my teammates getting me open and them creating space. It’s something we need to build on, for sure. It’s something that is a good asset for our team — a shooting 6-(foot)-8 five-man. So we got to take advantage of that and it will help open up our offense a lot as well."
Johnson said the Tigers will also look to feed Vitztum in the post.
"Obviously, we know how well he can shoot the ball," Johnson said. "But I think he can score in more ways than that. I think we’ve got to get it to him in the post a little bit more. He’s opened up his ability to drive to the basket.
"A lot of things are going to have to run through Jared."
The Tigers were dealt a big blow in the preseason when returning starting point guard Nyjee Wright suffered a broken foot during the players’ first week back on campus.
Compounding the injury, surgery was unable to be scheduled in a timely manner due to the pandemic, making it likely Wright will have to miss the first semester while he recovers.
Redshirt freshman Kaleb Hammeke, a Hutchinson-Trinity product, and true freshman Quinten Rock will look to fill the void until Wright returns.
"We’re excited about both those guys. We think they’re good players," Johnson said. "We feel they’re definitely good enough to go compete and we can win games with them."
FHSU is looking to bounce back from a 14-14 season (7-12 MIAA) that saw the Tigers miss the MIAA Tournament for the first time under Johnson.
"I think the two things that stand out this year compared to last year — I think the length and size of our team is a lot better this year," Johnson said, "and I think we’re much more athletic. Because of that, hopefully we can play a little faster and get some things in transition a little more this year than last year."
Returners who will take on bigger roles include senior guard Alvin Thompson, who averaged 6 points last year as a junior.
"Alvin Thompson will see significant increase in his playing time," Johnson said. "A junior college kid, sometimes it takes a year to figure it out. I think he’s playing at a much better level this year than last."
Senior forward Jackson Miller and sophomore forward Gilbert Peters are also expected to play bigger roles inside for the Tigers.
Johnson said forward Bjarni Jonnson, an Iceland native, looks more comfortable heading into his sophomore season.
"He’s going to see playing time this year," Johnson said. "He’s significantly improved, we feel like."
Gabe Pieschl, a guard from Marysville, is also expected to be on the floor after redshirting last year, but he’s currently battling an ankle injury.
The Tigers added another guard in Jordan Pumphrey out of Cerro Coso Community College in California.
"We brought in Jordan to bring in some experience," Johnson said. "We feel like we needed a couple older guys. He’s a 6-4 guard. Really skilled guard."
The Tigers’ true freshmen are Rock, a 6-foot guard out of Aurora, Colo.; Traejon Davis, a 6-5 guard from Oklahoma City; Haggan Hilgendorf, a 6-10 forward from Hastings, Neb.; and Elijah Nnnabu, a 6-3 freshman from Seattle.
Johnson said the Tigers expect big things out of Nnnabu, but may have to redshirt him this year, pending the result of a waiver the Tigers are trying to receive that would make eligible to play this year.
"That guy’s potential here and future here is big-time," Johnson said of Nnnabu, who attended Cooper International Academy prep school in California. "He’s a really, really talented kid that we’re excited to get him on the floor, hopefully this year. But if not, he’ll be a freshman next year. We feel like he’s one of the more talented players we’ve had in our program on the perimeter in quite some time. If we can get him to play this year that would be a significant difference in our team."
The Tigers are also planning to redshirt Hilgendorf.
"Super skilled 6-10 player for our level," Johnson said. "Offensively really gifted. We’re going to redshirt him, kind of like Jared Vitztum, a year to get more weight on him. But we’re interested to see what happens with his waiver if they give the basketball players the same waiver that they did the football players where this is kind of a free year. If that’s the case, we’ll probably suit him out and he’ll get on the floor also."
Devin Walker, a forward from Ulysses, will be a redshirt freshman for the Tigers.
Because of the pandemic, MIAA teams will play a 22-game schedule comprised of all conference games. The Tigers are scheduled to open the season Nov. 19 at home against Washburn.
"Everybody’s in the same boat," Johnson said. "It’s kind of a tough time for us, being as young as we are. We could have used some non-conference games leading into Washburn."
However, Johnson said, having his new players thrown into the fire immediately might not be such a bad thing.
"It will be a challenge for our team, but I look at it the other way sometimes," he said. "Sometimes when you’re young and you’re inexperienced, sometimes it’s good to maybe not know what you don’t know. Just go in there and go play and be kind of ignorant to how good the MIAA is, how big of a challenge it is. Maybe it will be a positive for our guys that they really don’t understand, and they’ll be confident and ready to play."
As for the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Johnson said the program will adapt and focus on what it can control.
"Really all you can do is go forward as you normally do," Johnson said. "I don’t know if we can really anticipate what’s going to happen. Are we going to start on time, how many games are going to be affected? It’s really kind of unknown so I think we just got to prepare like (normal). Our first game is Nov. 19 against Washburn, and Emporia that weekend.
"We just got to be prepared to play and be ready to go."
"You just got to block it out the best you can," he said. "You just got to worry about taking advantage of each day, taking advantage of the opportunities you got and then just going out on the court and enjoying it."
Editor’s note: Check Wednesday’s HDN for a preview of the Fort Hays State women’s basketball team with comments from FHSU coach Tony Hobson and senior point guard Jaden Hobbs.