Northwest men’s basketball began its first weekend of play Nov. 3-4, carrying with it a multitude of unknowns.
The No. 5 Bearcats (2-0) featured a starting lineup with just one returning starter from last season in senior forward Joey Witthus. Junior Ryan Welty is the only Bearcat on the roster that checked into the 2017 NCAA Division II National Championship game.
Expectations for Northwest’s weekend at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic ranged from hopeful to timid. The Bearcats were forced to face off against Northern State and Ferris State, the two teams who competed for a national title last March.
The young Bearcats triumphed in each matchup, beating Northern State in overtime 72-70 Nov. 3, and cruising past No. 13 Ferris State 100-86 Nov. 4 at the St. Joseph Civic Arena. Northwest entered the Classic seeking growth and development, and left with a perfect 2-0 record.
“It was nice to get wins,” coach Ben McCollum said. “When I talked last week, and we talked about how we’re a major work in progress and we’ll see where we are in a couple months, that still holds true.”
The pair of season-opening victories was not necessarily the goal for Northwest, just a byproduct of the process.
“We’re still trying to win games, but with the understanding that we’re more concerned with the process of getting better,” McCollum said. “I’m just as happy as I would have been--I’m a little happier--but close to just as happy as I would’ve been had we competed and even lost one of those games.”
Redshirt freshman Trevor Hudgins played no small part in the Bearcats’ successful showing in St. Joseph. The guard averaged 25.5 points per game over the weekend, shooting 46.9 percent from the field and taking home the SCB Hall of Fame Classic MVP award for his performance.
“I just played with my guys,” Hudgins said. “(I) played for them, just tried to execute the game plan that coach had, just tried to have fun (and) compete. I just played my game.”
Hudgins accredited much of his success to the play of his teammates. In the Ferris State matchup, Northwest started the game on fire, making each of its first 10 threes. Hudgins, a Manhattan, Kansas, native, iterated his concern lied more in the team’s success, rather than his own statistical production.
“It’s like Christmas,” Hudgins said of his teammates’ hot start. “Hawk (Ryan Hawkins) was 4-for-4, Welty’s a great shooter, Joey, Kirk Finley was amazing this weekend. (I) just love the group of guys I have. I couldn’t do anything without them, to be honest. I played for them this weekend. I just want to win.”
The weekend was an encouraging start for the Bearcats. Hudgins shined. Witthus demonstrated poise. Hawkins showed flashes of a clutch gene. True freshman guard Diego Bernard exhibited promise.
Northwest’s play, as a whole, was strong. But McCollum made it clear that the team’s current form is nowhere near a finished product.
“We’re a work in progress,” McCollum said. “We got up 25 (points against Ferris State), and mature teams would’ve gotten up 40. We’re not quite there yet, and we need to make sure we improve on that.”
Next, the team will return to St. Joseph to compete in the Hillyard Tipoff Classic Nov. 9-10. Northwest will take on Upper Iowa Nov. 9 and Winona State Nov. 10. Historically, the Bearcats have fared well in the month of November: they haven’t lost a game in the month since Nov. 19, 2015, against Agusta.
“I want to get better,” McCollum said. “That’s going to be the most difficult part; mature teams understand the process. Teams that are youthful feel pretty good about themselves, like, ‘Oh man, we might be decent,’ and it’s like, well, no, that’s a result. Results do not make you decent.”
The Bearcats will once again head to the Civic Arena with an intent to get better, focusing on improvement, rather than outcome.
“If you attack the process every day, that makes you decent, that makes you a good team, regardless of the outcome,” McCollum said. “We need to be mature enough to understand that … before we look forward to the weekend.”