As I was sitting on press row and DeShaun Cooper’s half-court prayer was in midair, I thought it was cash, but it Gordon Hayward-ed off the back of the rim. As the ball bounced off the iron and fell to the floor, the game ended, but something else will live on for years to come.
As a journalist, when I cover games, I have to remain unbiased, although I’m a student at Northwest. With that being said, this was, hands down, my favorite team I have ever covered.
On the court, they played the game the right way—unselfish, defense-oriented basketball. Every player had a role and never tried to play outside of that. Cooper was going to score, Dillon Starzl was going to beast in the paint and kick to shooters, Tyler Funk was going to make your life hell when he was on the court and Zach Schneider was going to shoot threes…a lot.
Ben McCollum yanked his program from the depths of basketball purgatory and has been building it for five years. He has instilled an energy to his team that starts with him. While on the sidelines, he is constantly coaching. He is either yelling out plays or telling the guys what they should have done instead of sitting back and letting the game happen.
That’s rarer than what people realize. Yeah, he will have the knees of 15-year veteran MLB catchers in a few years from constantly squatting, but you can tell the guys respond, knowing how much effort he puts in from the sidelines.
If the program stays at a high level for years to come (and I think it will), it will be because of Coach Mac. Every player he brings in is a winner. He’s a winner. They’ll have no choice but to win.
While making sure they said the right things, McCollum let them be themselves, whether it was Matt Wallace showing up looking like Eminem one day to rocking a Fu Mattchu the next or letting Cooper announce they had a new nickname for Schneider—Snipe—at a press conference.
During interviews, the players would say the truth while making sure they didn’t give up bulletin board material.
Cooper let you know how good he was and Bryston Williams was always excited about something at all times—it was refreshing and made people want to read about them and watch them more.
While talking to the seniors and other upperclassmen, you could tell they knew they altered the program while the season was still going on.
If you had been to a men’s basketball game three or four years ago, you had plenty of options for seating, and if the sounds of sneakers screeching didn’t bother you, you could get some homework done.
This season, some of the games were standing room only. The Northwest student body and Maryville community embraced this team because it did things the right way.
McCollum once said that he would almost rather play on the road than in an empty home gym, but he won’t have to worry about that for a while.
In a few years, the athletic department should hang up a No. 2 banner from the rafters in Bearcat Arena, and the gym will be packed to see it happen because of what this team did.