It’s not a secret that Northwest men’s basketball touts a high-octane offense, one that seems to border between exceptional and ridiculous.
The Bearcats (19-0, 9-0 MIAA) lead the nation in scoring margin, beating their opponents by an average of 23.9 points per game. They’re No. 1 in 3-point percentage (44.1 percent), and they rank third field goal percentage (53.1).
More often than not, Northwest shoots the lights out. But when statistics emerged on Twitter last week originating from Synergy Sports Tech, it provided some perspective of just how good the Bearcats have been this season.
Before the No. 2 Bearcats earned two double-digit conference road wins over Nebraska-Kearney and Fort Hays State last week, they averaged 1.34 points per possession. The NCAA Division I record is 1.23 points per possession.
According to Synergy, Northwest’s offense is the most efficient of any collegiate offense at any level dating back to 2005. Coach Ben McCollum wasn’t really surprised by this revelation.
“For the last few years, we’ve been towards the top of the country, if not the top of the country, in offensive efficiency,” McCollum said. “So, (the newfound stats) didn’t shock me probably like it did everyone else.”
McCollum essentially chalked up Northwest’s superior offensive efficiency to execution. The Bearcats shoot well from beyond the arc, they limit mid-range shots, they attack the paint and they rarely turn the ball over. Those things, McCollum said, translate to an efficient offense.
“I’m not a huge stat guy, except for the results,” McCollum said. “My big thing is, try to get (in the) paint and try to get quality catch-and-shoot threes or quality off-the-bounce threes. We’ve got kids that want to win and they understand that’s the best way to win, so they naturally will do that.”
Ahead of Northwest and its acclaimed offense lies two familiar and unforgiving foes. The Bearcats will take on Pittsburg State (14-5, 7-3 MIAA) Jan. 31 and Missouri Southern (16-4, 7-3 MIAA) Feb. 2.
Pittsburg State sits fourth in the MIAA and is led by second-year coach Kim Anderson who led Central Missouri to a Division II National Championship in 2014 before serving as head coach at the University of Missouri for three seasons.
“He’s got good players,” McCollum said of Anderson. “Yeah, he’s got a lot of talent. And that’s what he always had at Central, too. They’ve got two kids that score a majority of their points and are very difficult to defend, and they take care of the basketball. It’ll be a fun game against them.”
Missouri Southern carries a different challenge, and with it, a deeper rivalry of late. The Bearcats have lost two in a row to the Lions, including a 73-70 loss at Bearcat Arena last February, the last Northwest home loss on record.
McCollum wouldn’t allude that the matchup with Southern held greater weight than any other conference game and interjected before sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins even got the chance.
“It’s just another game, isn’t it Hawk?” McCollum asked rhetorically when Hawkins was asked about the possibility of the Missouri Southern contest serving as an opportunity for revenge.
The moment defined a sentiment that Northwest has maintained throughout the season and perhaps throughout McCollum’s tenure: every game matters as much as the last. The belief is not only preached on the surface but seems to be genuinely practiced internally for Northwest.
“(The expectation is) just to play hard, just to compete and see what happens,” McCollum said in regards to the upcoming matchups. “I don’t usually build them up a ton, so we just kind of go hard and see what happens, really. (There’s) no change, no difference.”
While countless programs boast the same ideology, few implement it with as much success as Northwest. Said success is in-part what brings players like Hawkins to Maryville, and the implemented culture is what makes them.
Hawkins, who’s already attempted 197 three-pointers this season and has converted on nearly half of them (44.2 percent), said he never really took treys in high school. He prided himself on rebounds and steals. McCollum saw him differently.
“Hawk could always shoot,” McCollum said. “I think, though, the weapons and the threat that he had in high school, when he’s 6’7-6’8 with such a big wingspan, inside (the paint) that’s much better. We like length that can shoot.”
At 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Hawkins is long. And his shooting is now well established. On the surface, Hawkins and Northwest are a match made in heaven, though they were nearly not a match made at all.
Hawkins was committed to Wayne State but changed his mind after the program went through a coaching change. Within a few days, he was in contact with McCollum and visited Northwest’s campus.
After visiting the campus, Hawkins called McCollum before he even got back to his Iowa home, telling the coach he would sign.
“I like winning,” Hawkins said. “They win a lot here; pretty good combination.”
It was proved to be a pretty good combination thus far, with Hawkins averaging 16.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for Northwest this season, his first as a starter. In some ways, Hawkins breakout season has been an embodiment of the entire team’s performance.
“That’s a lot,” McCollum said of Hawkins’ stats. “Those are results though. I saw him being able to perform at a high level. But, those numbers are just, I guess, the result of the work he’s put in and the effort he gives throughout games.”
Externally, he was expected to be good, as were the Bearcats. But not many predicted his season, or the team’s, would yield such dynamic play.