Everything about the way Mark Johnson runs the men’s basketball program at Fort Hays State is about earning the right.
You earn the right to put on the jersey. You earn the right to play in games. You earn the right to take the big shot.
You even have to earn the right to set goals.
“I say this all the time, but we never set goals at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said. “You work hard and you try to get better, but I don’t think you can really set a goal until there’s about a month left in the season and you’re right there and you’re competing. You set those goals early and you’re worried about that instead of worried about getting better.
“When it really means something, and we’ve earned it, we’ll talk about goals.”
And while this year’s team hasn’t earned anything on the court yet, they’re already held in fairly high esteem. The Tigers are the preseason pick to win the MIAA in both the coaches and media polls after going 20-8 last season and sharing a piece of the MIAA regular-season title for the first time since joining the MIAA in 2006.
“We just expect to win,” said Johnson, who has led the Tigers to five NCAA Tournament appearances in 12 seasons. “The players that come here are very serious about basketball and getting their education and about winning. Everything else weeds itself out.”
Fort Hays State loses two players who earned honorable mention All-MIAA honors in guards Lance Russell and Ben Congiusta but returns its two best players in All-MIAA selection Dwayne Brunson, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds, and Wichita native Craig Nicholson, a 5-foot-8 sophomore point guard who was a second-team All-MIAA selection and the league’s freshman of the year.
“I don’t want to call him a trash man, but he’s got a high-level garbage game,” Johnson said, laughing. “He just gets to the balls and the baskets that nobody else wants. You look up at the end of every game and he’s got 16 points and eight or nine rebounds. He runs the floor and gets transition points at a high, high rate. He scores in a variety of ways.”
Brunson, who is from Queens and played two years at Barton County, says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the Tigers a win and will stick with what’s made him successful.
“Right now we’re just trying to put the pieces together and find who fits where and what they do well,” Brunson said. “I’m just a freelancer when it comes to that, I pretty much just play my role and do what I’m supposed to do by hustling around. I’ve got some more experience and that’s important with the guys we lost.”
Nicholson, who averaged 13.8 points and was second in the nation with 6.9 assists, was the surprise star in the MIAA last season — not to mention the shock he gave to his older teammates when he first showed up on campus.
“Not knowing (Nicholson) and not knowing his background, the first time he stepped on the court with us I was just like ... no way, not happening because of his size,” Brunson said. “And now I wouldn’t trade him for any other point guard in the league.”
Nicholson also shot 41.8 percent from three-point range. He spent most of the summer back in Wichita playing pickup basketball and working out.
“It’s pretty much a new squad again, but I like what I’m seeing already,” Nicholson said. “It’s my second year, so I’m trying to be more of a leader and help the new guys out and try to help them understand what the program is all about. If we do things right, hopefully that will get us in the position we need to be at at the end of the season.”