MIAA picks Tigers to finish sixth, team has better results in mind

By Randy Gonzales
Special to the Hays Daily News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Last season’s injuries should help the Tigers this year.

The Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team was picked to finish sixth in both the coaches and media polls at Tuesday’s MIAA media day.

“We’re excited for the year,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “Sixth is where we should have been picked going into the season, but we’ll be disappointed if we finish sixth when it’s all said and done.”

Johnson’s optimism is based on younger players seeing extensive playing time last season due to injuries.

“We lost some guys to injuries but it’s going to pay benefits this year,” Johnson said. “We had kids who maybe weren’t expecting to play that got to play more than we ever thought.

“I think you’re going to see the effects of that this year,” he added. “They’re going to be ready to go and have good seasons for us.”

Fort Hays finished 11-11 last season after a slow start.

“It was a struggle early in the season,” Johnson said.

The highlight of the season was upsetting NCAA Division I Kansas State in an exhibition game on the Wildcats’ home court.

FHSU senior forward Jared Vitztum led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding last season. The Tigers are picked sixth in the preseason MIAA polls.

“Winning at K-State was huge for our team, the program, the athletic department, the school,” said Johnson, adding the win will be memorable for the players. “More than anything, just the experience of our players to do that. That’s something those guys will never forget.”

The Tigers finished strong last year, going 7-3 down the stretch. They return senior forward Jared Vitztum, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An All-MIAA First Team selection, Vitztum averaged 18.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game and led the nation in double-doubles.

“That’s a pretty good starting point coming back,” Johnson said.

Defending national champion Northwest Missouri State was the overwhelming choice to win the conference in both the coaches and media polls. But the Tigers might have the best home-court advantage.

“We feel we have the best facility in the conference,” Johnson said. “We lead the league in attendance every year.

“If you win, you’re going to get tremendous support,” he added. “When you’re winning, there’s not a better place to be in the league than Fort Hays State.”