Before Northwest men’s basketball played a single game this season, coach Ben McCollum thought his team was on the edge of something big.
In the team’s opening press conference in October, the 10-year coach said the Bearcats were “on the edge of greatness” while simultaneously being “on the other edge of absolute disaster.”
Now, three months later, Northwest (21-0, 11-0 MIAA) has swept its way through much of the season and has earned the top spot in the NAVC Division II poll, recognizing the Bearcats as the best team in the country.
McCollum said after the team’s first scrimmage in the preseason, he didn’t know what to expect. After the third scrimmage was complete, McCollum realized how good Northwest could be.
“We scored a lot of points in a very short amount of time,” McCollum said of Northwest's third scrimmage. “I thought then, ‘Hey, you know we might have a chance, offensively in particular, to be pretty special.’”
On the surface, the Bearcats seem to have exceeded every expectation set for them at the start of the season. It defies logic for a team to graduate the core of a National Championship and run and still run one of the most efficient offenses in the history of college basketball, but that’s what Northwest has done.
Internally, the narrative changes. McCollum has repeatedly said that the Bearcats haven’t outplayed his expectations, mostly because he doesn’t set expectations.
“I was never overly concerned necessarily,” McCollum said. “I think if you look too much into the future, you can kind of break yourself real early or take yourself for granted. We just try to do the day-to-day thing, and hopefully, we can get a little better today at practice.”
For Northwest, being ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is nothing new. Northwest has spent at least one week in the top spot in each of the last four seasons and spent 13 weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in 2017.
“It is neat to be that high,” McCollum said. “Especially this year … we were instantly taking everybody’s best shot. (We) have continued to earn and earn and earn. To be ranked this high this late, you essentially have to earn that. Now that you’ve earned that, you’ve got to move on and understand that it's really nothing other than a ranking.”
McCollum said even his younger players, like freshmen guards Diego Bernard, Xavier Rhodes and Trevor Hudgins, should be able to continue operating normally with Northwest touting its new ranking.
“I try to say this with all humility: we’ve been ranked that high for a long time,” McCollum said. “Not No. 1, but just in the top-five. We’ve taken everyone’s best shot for so long that when you go to practice, it’s the same. It shouldn’t impact our kids. If it does, I probably recruited the wrong kids.”
The kids McCollum recruited have played their way to the top spot, winning 21-consecutive games to start the season. In some ways, senior swingman Joey Witthus has led the charge for Northwest.
The transfer from Minnesota State has averaged 27.6 points per game over his last eight contests and won his second MIAA Player of the Week award for his performances against Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern. Witthus averaged 32 points per game in those conference matchups.
“He’s been fantastic,” McCollum said of Witthus. “He’s just been consistent. He’s a very difficult matchup because he can post up, he can drive, and he can shoot at a very high level. He’s a good passer, and he gets most of his points in the flow, so that makes him a little more difficult to defend.”
Hudgins last week described his senior teammate as the “college James Harden.” McCollum sees it differently. Despite his high-praise of Witthus, McCollum attributed a lot of the swingman’s gaudy point totals to Northwest’s ability to space the floor.
In short, opposing defenses don’t have much of an option. Opposing teams could double Witthus, but that may leave junior forward Ryan Welty or sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins open in either corner. The former has the highest active three-point percentage across Division II, while the latter is knocking down threes at a 43 percent clip.
The other option for opposing defenses is to leave Hudgins or Bernard lightly guarded, both of whom have a dynamic ability to make plays. None of the options are good, and it allows Witthus, or whoever is handling the ball, to dominate without restraint.
“The unselfishness that’s required to allow Joey to be that good from Ryan (Welty) spacing the floor, that’s what makes our program really good,” McCollum said. “And Joey would be the first to say that. Obviously, somebody has to be Joey, and somebody has to be Ryan, (Welty) and somebody has to be Hawk(ins). They all have to accept that and love their role.”
Witthus is as humble as his coach predicted. After dropping 28 points in Northwest’s matchup with Missouri Southern, leading all scores for the second time in as many games, Witthus chalked up his impressive performance to the play of his teammates. He’s done this all season.
“My teammates, they get me opened,” Witthus said. “Especially (Hudgins). He draws a lot of people when he drives. To be able to have him look for me and have Diego look for me, and then just having Kirk (Finley) out there driving hard, and Hawk and Welty to space the floor ... that’s what’s so unique about our offense. There’s so many different threats out there.”
The unselfish style of basketball is what has driven Northwest to the No. 1 ranking and a perfect record 21 games into the season, and it’s what the Bearcats hope will drive them further, perhaps deep into the NCAA Division II tournament, though they won’t look that far ahead.
“I’ve always thought that tournaments have been fairly overrated,” McCollum said. “It’s your (performance) over time (that matters). It’s your over time, how you do perform day-in and day-out, through injuries, through whatever’s going on, against different teams. So far, this team’s proven that they can do that, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”