Tigers roll in exhibition opener
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Mark Johnson knows his Fort Hays State University men's basketball team has some offensive threats, including senior forward Dwayne Brunson, a returning first team all-MIAA selection, and sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, the reigning Freshman of the Year.
As well, senior guard Carson Konrade has moved into the starting lineup after he had a solid year as the sixth man on a conference championship squad last winter.
However, the question marks come on defense. Those strengths and weaknesses were evident in a 94-68 season-opening exhibition win against NAIA Bethel College on Wednesday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"Are we going to be able to guard anybody, and are we going to be able to compete on the glass?" Johnson said. "We have some things offensively that we can survive."
The Tigers don't have much size, lack a big interior player and Johnson said the team "isn't overly athletic." Fort Hays, paced by a big first half from junior transfer guard James Fleming, led 35-7 midway through the first half and 55-27 at the break.
Johnson subbed liberally and the starters played just five minutes after intermission. FHSU shot 52 percent for the game, while Bethel shot 51 percent, 39 percent in the first half. Fort Hays will travel to Allen Fieldhouse to play an exhibition game against Kansas next Tuesday.
"A lot of times, we didn't play that bad of defense," Johnson said. "They would just jump over us and make shots. That is going to happen a lot to us this year. I don't know if we are going to have a chance to be a great defensive team, but we've just got to be good enough. That's probably the goal of this year's team, we've have got to find a way to be good enough."
Fleming, a Fort Scott Community College transfer, and sophomore forward Jake Stoppel, a Wilson graduate and a Neosho County Community College transfer, stepped into the starting lineup. In a 90-second stretch, Fleming scored six points and moved the lead to 14-4.
"Coach Johnson, when I came here, he told me that I could be a part of something real great," Fleming said. "I saw they won the league last year, so that also drew my attention here. He told me I would be playing alongside Craig and Dwayne Brunson also. You add those kind of guys to what we do, we're playing in a system - my job is easy, just knock down shots."
First, he had a steal and went the length of the floor for a layup. Then, he sunk a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Fleming then tacked on another steal and layup. He finished with 16 first half points in just nine minutes and had a team-high 22 for the game on 8 of 10 shooting, 6 of 7 from long range.
"Craig Nicholson is a great point guard," Fleming said. "He gets into the lane, and that's what brings that help side over. Craig is one of the great point guards in the league."
Junior center Jared Tadlock, a pickup from NCAA Division I University of Miami-Ohio, tallied 19 points and was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field, 4 of 4 from beyond the arc.
Among returners, Johnson said senior center Andrew Victoria is in worse health than last season when he was bothered by knee problems. Throughout the offseason, FHSU didn't think Victoria was going to play, he received clearance late.
Victoria's 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame is expected to help against some of the bigger teams, such as Northwest Missouri State University. Junior guard Tomislav Gabric redshirted last season after some transfer issues and contributed 10 points.
Senior guard Nick Capiti, a reserve last year, will redshirt. Junior backup guard Achoki Moikobu, a transfer, played after he missed the last several days with an ankle sprain.
"Tom is a big guard, athletic guy," Johnson said. "He really would have been a nice fit for last year. We really needed him last year, we didn't have a lot of guys that could drive."
FHSU finished 14 of 27 (52 percent) from long range after it shot 41 percent on 3s and set a school mark with a 76.7 free throw rate last year. Johnson is uncertain whether the Tigers can shoot the ball like last season, but believes the squad has more players that can shoot the trey compared to '12-13.
"We need to be able to get out into transition," Johnson said. "That needs to be a big key for us. The way we are going to score at times, we are not going to overpower you inside. We have got to get stops, get rebounds, let Craig in the open floor, put heat on the defense."