Fort Hays State University men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson is no stranger to the national stage, and neither are his players.
The Tigers made the dance once again as Fort Hays (25-6), ranked No. 13 in the nation, was named the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Division II South Central regional on Selection Sunday and will face No. 5 seed West Texas A&M University (23-6) 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Edmond, Okla.
Johnson has been to the national tournament five of his 10 years at Fort Hays, and his players were there last year and also will have qualified three of the past four years.
“We are a team that has been through it before,” Johnson said. “It is not like it is going to be the first time for us.”
Johnson said he has tried about every possible way to prepare for national tournament games in the past. His past teams have approached the tournament with intensity and also have been relaxed, but he said ultimately, the most important part is just remaining confident.
“It is just how well you play that day,” Johnson said. “I think you have to go in confident, but at the same time, you can’t let that moment get to you.”
Johnson said his Tigers are an emotional team whose desire to win can be both a positive and negative, so his team might want to try to relax heading into the tournament.
“Winning is very important to them,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, that gets the best of our emotions. Sometimes, this group starts wanting it too bad, and we get a little tight and miss shots and does some things that don’t go the way they want.”
After losing three of their five final regular season games, the Tigers reversed their momentum and won the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association tournament championship, defeating Missouri Western State University 86-85, Emporia State University 74-71 and No. 8 Missouri Southern State University 89-83.
It was the first MIAA title Fort Hays has gotten since joining the conference in 2006.
“This is something no Fort Hays team has done in the MIAA,” senior guard Corbin Kuntzsch said on the MIX 103.3 postgame show on Sunday. “To win a championship, it feels good. We are going to celebrate, but we are also going to prepare for next week, too.”
Johnson said he hopes the momentum from the tournament will help, but he said conference tournament success does not guarantee national tournament success.
“You look at (the University of Nebraska-Omaha) who won our conference tournament a year ago and got beat in the first round,” Johnson said. “There is not a whole lot of transfer from having success in a conference tournament to having success in the NCAA tournament. In some ways, it goes the opposite way.”
West Texas A&M ended its season, winning four of its last five games. Its one loss was to No. 4 University of Central Oklahoma, falling 66-63 in double overtime.
Senior guard LaDarius Hall leads West Texas A&M in scoring with 13.7 points per game.
All of West Texas A&M’s starters stand over 6-feet tall, which could be a challenge for some of Fort Hays’ smaller guards, such as 5-foot-9 senior guard Dominique Jones and 5-foot-8 junior guard Moses Dayee.
“We are worried about Dominique again,” Johnson said. “We are going to play another team that can put a 6-4 athlete on him. They have big strong, athletic guards, and they have some long and lanky, athletic guys inside that can give Ken (Bowman) and Dijon (Smith) some problems.”
If the Tigers win, they will face either No. 1 seed Central Oklahoma (28-3) or No. 8 seed Texas A&M International University (21-9) in the second round.
The three teams the Tigers have faced this season, No. 9 Missouri Southern State University (25-4), Midwestern State University (22-8) and Washburn University (18-9), are on the other side of the bracket, and that is the way Johnson said he likes it.
Johnson said he likes facing new opponents but also likes changes of scenery. Because of that, he said he is looking forward to playing in regional host Central Oklahoma’s facilities, since it is a location his team hasn’t competed at.
“It is nice that we get to go to a different destination that we haven’t been,” Johnson said. “There is some excitement for our players. The same thing when you are playing an opponent. You don’t want to get stuck playing another MIAA team, and this year, it would have been Midwestern from the Lone Star that we’ve already faced.”
The tournament will be the final outing for the Tigers’ four-star seniors: Jones, Smith, Kuntzsch and Bowman.
South Central region first-team selection and the MIAA tournament’s Most Valuable Player, Jones, who is averaging 17.9 points, 6.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game, leads the Tigers.
Smith, a MIAA second-team and all-defensive team selection, is second on the team with 14.4 points per game. He also averages six rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
Bowman and Kuntzsch, All-MIAA honorable mention selections, average 10.8 and 10.7 points per game.
“We don’t have no tomorrow,” Jones said. “We are going to play like there is no tomorrow.”