Midseason check-in: Men’s basketball enjoying solid start fueled by defense

BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTO BY JESS KIRCHHOFF

The 2021-22 season is shaping up to be a successful one for the Fort Hays men’s basketball team. After 14 games, the Tigers boast an overall record of 11-3, and a 6-3 record in conference play. The team has made key improvements this season compared to the last two, which they finished with records of 14-14 and 11-11.

Head coach Mark Johnson says that improved defense and more experienced players have been the difference this season. Early in the year, the Tigers were able to win against Washburn, Emporia, and Nebraska-Kearney, three games that they lost by four or less points last season.

“Obviously we have more experience,” Johnson said. “A lot of those guys were freshmen last year and it was early in the season, so I think our inexperience was a factor in that. The second part of that is, the big reason you win close games is defense. Great defense down the stretch at the end of games, last year we weren’t able to do that and this year we are.”

Something else that is different this year is the home crowd. Due to the pandemic, the average attendance last season was 797 over 11 home games. With looser restrictions and fans being more comfortable this season, that average has risen to 1762 over nine games. 

“It’s been good,” said Johnson. “It’s good for our players. That’s what makes college basketball, is the atmosphere, the crowd, and the excitement of games. It’s good especially for a guy like Jared [Vitztum] who was a senior last year. To finish your career with no one really allowed in the stands wasn’t going to be a great finish. So it’s been good for him and our whole team.”

Vitztum was the top returner from last season and is the lone senior for the Tigers after the NCAA granted all winter athletes an extra year of eligibility. Coming off of an All-MIAA First Team selection in the 2020-21 season, Vitztum has had another solid year for Fort Hays. 

He leads the team in scoring, rebounds, and blocked shots. Vitztum averages 14.8 points per game, followed by Kaleb Hammeke and Nyjee Wright, who average 13.8 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. Vitztum, Hammeke, and Wright make up three out of the five starters.

Johnson says that he has been pleased with the roles each player on the team has taken on this season.

“I think we’ve done a really good job with that. We have guys that don’t get caught up in how many shots they get or how many minutes they play. It’s just about the goal of the team to win the game,” Johnson said. “I think everyone’s doing a good job of accepting their role, and each guy brings something of value for us. They just need to continue what they’ve been doing.”

Johnson also spoke about his other two starters and their contributions as well.

“You’ve got Bjarni Jonsson and Gabe Pieschl who are probably, arguably two of the best defenders in the MIAA. One of the reasons our defense is so good is because of those two guys right there, and some others, but those two guys really stand out at how well they help our team on the defensive end.”

As mentioned, defense has been one of the key factors in the Tigers’ success this season. The team’s defense has continued to improve from the beginning of the season.Fort Hays leads all of Division II basketball in average points allowed per game, with 57.4. 

“The main reason for our success at this point in the season has been our defense. We’ve been a really good defensive team and really been making it hard for the other teams to score points on every possession,” Johnson said.

In conference play, the Tigers’ best defensive game has been against Nebraska-Kearney. They were able to hold the Lopers to 46 points overall, and just 12 in the entire first half. An impressive feat, especially considering that the MIAA is one of the toughest conferences to play in.

“We’re the best league in the country,” Johnson said. “Our league has won a lot of national championships in recent years. “It’s a test every night. It doesn’t matter who you play, you have to be ready to go, home or away. It’s such a balanced, deep league that you have to come ready to play each and every day.”

Fort Hays is currently fifth in the MIAA standings. In upcoming games, Missouri Western, and Missouri Southern, who are seventh and third in the standings.

Johnson says that his team is focused on getting better offensively throughout the rest of the season.

“That’s been the side of the ball that we haven’t played as well as we would’ve liked. We feel like we can be better than we have been,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves when we’re not scoring at the rate we feel like we need to score to be a successful team. So we have to get better offensively, but as we’re doing that we can’t have a let down on the defensive end.”

Fort Hays will play six more home games during the remainder of the season. For the full schedule and links to watch or listen to games, please visit the FHSU Athletics website. Past and future articles can be found on the Tiger Media Network social media accounts, as well as the website.

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