With a slew of MIAA games on the horizon, Northwest men’s basketball appears to be firing on all cylinders.
The No. 2 Bearcats (8-0) blew past Midland College 100-66 Dec. 1, winning their eighth consecutive game to start the season and their third in a row by more than 20 points. Northwest will be tested by two capable conference opponents this week, squaring off with Lincoln (4-2) Dec. 6 and Lindenwood (6-4) Dec. 8.
Northwest has won five consecutive MIAA regular season titles. Despite graduating four starters last spring, the team has remained elite through the season’s first eight games.
The Bearcats rank No. 1 in the country in turnovers, averaging just 8.1 per game. They rank No.1 in scoring margin, No. 4 in three-point percentage and have allowed the fewest points per game in the conference.
By every measure, Northwest is an elite team. Still, coach Ben McCollum remains modest in the assessment of his roster.
“I think their process is getting there,” McCollum said of his players. “I think the results will just take care of themselves; you’re either good enough or you’re not. I think every year you have a chance to win (the MIAA). There’s 19 (conference) games and you’ve got 19 opportunities to win. We’ve just go to compete and stick with that process.”
The MIAA is historically a tightly contested basketball conference. The Bearcats are one of just two teams to ever win the conference regular season crown five times in a row. McCollum pointed to Northwest’s resolve as a driving factor in its consistency.
“Everybody in our league has a lot of talent, but everybody in our league isn’t mentally tough enough to go through that grind,” McCollum said. “It’s really about that mental toughness, that attitude. And a lot of people say mental toughness is kicking the door down and fighting through fatigue. That’s not really what it is, in my opinion, it’s being in a good mood, really.”
McCollum said that the coaching staff attempts to sharpen the team’s mental toughness by throwing adversity at the Bearcats in practices, something they haven’t had to deal with much in games this season. Northwest has dealt with a few nagging injuries so far, but since its season-opening 72-20 overtime win over Northern State, the team has won every game by double digits.
A large part of Northwest’s success has been the dynamic play of senior guard Joey Witthus, the team’s only returning starter from a season ago. Witthus, a transfer from Minnesota State, is one of four Bearcats averaging double digits in scoring this season.
Witthus, who was the youngest starter last season, has aged into a veteran and has been thrust into a leadership role. The senior has taken the new role in stride.
“I think the biggest way that I’ve grown is just trying to be a leader, and having those seniors last year show me what it takes to be a leader and how to be a leader has really helped men,” Witthus said. “So I’m trying to do the same thing for some of the younger guys this year.”
McCollum has both warned that wins can be deceiving and concurrently admitted Northwest’s strong start has helped spur continued trust in the process. The young Bearcats will look to continue their winning ways as they begin their conference season Dec. 6 in Bearcat Arena.
“The younger guys, early on, always believe what I say because I’ve been there when we’ve won a lot doing it the way that we’re preaching,” McCollum said. “Until they actually see it happen, sometimes kids can’t really trust you, and once they saw (the winning) happen, it was like, ‘Oh, OK. The things he’s making us do are actually helping us.’”