Upsets have been contagious in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s postseason – especially this year – but Fort Hays State University men’s basketball head coach Mark Johnson hopes his team can get rid of the upset bug before heading into the NCAA Division II South Central regional tournament on Saturday.
The South Central regional reserves at-large spots for the top-ranked teams from the MIAA, LSC and Heartland Conference and the three conference tournament champions.
After the top two teams in the MIAA suffered letdowns in their conference tournament, Midwestern State University, ranked No. 3 in the nation, earned the regional hosting rights and the first seed when it won the Lonestar Conference tournament championship.
The top two teams in the MIAA, No. 7 University of Central Missouri (25-3) and No. 14 FHSU (22-6), earned the second and third seeds in the South Central regional.
“We have a whole week to get ready,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to fine tune the things we are doing.”
The Tigers will face the University of Central Oklahoma (22-6), the sixth seed, in the first round on Saturday in Wichita Falls, Texas. The tipoff is scheduled for noon.
The last time FHSU made the national tournament was in 2007-2008 when the Tigers also faced UCO in the opening round.
The roles were reversed that season, with UCO the third seed while FHSU was the sixth seed. FHSU lost 65-64.
“If anything, we have a chip on our shoulders facing the same team that beat us two years ago,” junior Corbin Kuntzsch said. “We want to go down there and take care of business.”
UCO features a tall and quick four-guard starting lineup with the shortest guard standing at 6 feet, 2 inches.
Junior point guard Dauntae Williams, who averages 19.9 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and 5.5 assists per game, leads the Broncos.
“All of them are 6-4 with one being 6-8, but we should have an advantage inside,” Kuntzsch said. “We want to get the ball inside and get our big guys involved early.”
Johnson said Williams, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds, could be tough to handle since his point guards, junior Dominique Jones and senior Willie Hassell, stand at 5-foot-7 and weigh approximately 160 pounds.
“When you get into personnel, it is probably a bad match-up for us,” Johnson said. “Their guards are big. Ours are small. We have big post players, and they are going to be going against more guards. It will be interesting to see who will be able to take advantage of what each other has.”
Though Johnson said UCO’s personnel could be a problem, he said UCO’s fast-paced style of offense could be an advantage for FHSU.
“I think we have done better against up-and-down teams,” Johnson said. “We will guard you. If you don’t guard us quite as well back, we seem to be able to score.”
The Tigers started the season on a high note, winning their first 11 conference games and being ranked as high as No. 3 in Division II, but they struggled in the latter part of the season, losing five of their last 10 games and shooting below their early season average.
“We feel like if we can get on a hot streak at that tournament that we can be as good as anybody there, and we can win the thing,” Johnson said. “At the same time, if we continue to play the way we are right now, we will be one and done.”
At the MIAA tournament that was chock-full of upsets, the Tigers ended up being “one and done.”
Earlier in the afternoon on Friday, No. 1 seed UCM lost 79-60 to No. 8 seed Washburn University, which was followed by No. 2 seed FHSU losing to No. 7 seed Emporia State University 65-61.
“Central and us knew going in that we were in the NCAA tournament,” Kuntzsch said. “Plus, it is hard to beat a team three times in a year. Both Central and us found out the hard way.
“Emporia and Washburn came in and played like they had nothing to lose. Their backs were against the walls.”
It was the third consecutive year FHSU was ousted from the tournament by a lower seed, and it was the third time in a row the No. 8 seed in the MIAA tournament made the finals.
“With this league, it is so good top to bottom that I’m not sure that when you get to the postseason that the talent level is any different,” Johnson said. “It might have been the higher seeds might have overachieved a little bit and the lower seeds probably underachieved. Now that it is the postseason, everyone is playing at their optimum level.”
After blowing out ESU 94-47 at home five days earlier, the Tigers couldn’t repeat the same success.
“Our guys didn’t overlook the game at all or take it for granted,” Johnson said. “We played extremely hard, but we just didn’t necessarily play that well.”
FHSU shot better from the field and from the 3-point line, but miscues at the foul line and taking care of the ball proved to be the Tigers’ downfall.
The Tigers turned it over 17 times to ESU’s six. FHSU also shot 10 of 17 from the free throw line, while the Hornets made 23 of 24.
“When you look at it, you are minus 13 from the foul line and 11 in the turnover margin, and when that happens, it is hard to win,” Johnson said.