Since the MIAA released a 22-game, conference-only slate for the 2020-21 season June 18, Northwest men’s basketball has planned to open the season Nov. 19 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, against Northeastern State.
A week prior to the Bearcats’ scheduled season opener, Northeastern State announced its men’s program had positive COVID-19 cases, effectively postponing the matchup between the ’Cats and RiverHawks.
“What we stay focused on is staying present, moving forward and trying to fight for a season,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “I think that in order to kind of get things moving again, there’s a level of precaution that has to go into it, and there’s also a level of fight for your season and just trying to give these kids a good college experience.”
The RiverHawks weren’t required to test prior to the MIAA’s agreement to test every Monday of basketball season, yet they did. It perhaps saved the further spread of cases throughout the program and Northwest.
The game has since been rescheduled for Dec. 31, a holiday both programs were willing to give up in order to play.
“It was eye-opening, I’ll say that, just because Northeastern State did some testing last week — which they didn’t have to do, but appreciative that they did,” Northwest Director of Athletics Andy Peterson said. “It really kind of showed us — it was difficult to get that game scheduled on the 31st, just to try to stay away from other games and travel partners, the whole conundrum.”
Now, the Bearcats will set their sights on opening the season against Rogers State Nov. 21 in Claremore, Oklahoma. The two programs met once last year, the first ever meeting between the two, which resulted in Northwest winning 74-55 in Bearcat Arena.
The Hillcats finished right behind the Bearcats in the MIAA last year with a final record of 24-6, including a 15-4 mark in conference play.
The Bearcats are hoping the second time has a similar result the first, despite the Hillcats being the second-best team in the MIAA last season.
“I feel like every game in the MIAA feels like it’s for a national championship, just with the level of energy we all bring,” senior forward Ryan Hawkins said, the reigning MIAA Defensive Player of the Year. “(Rogers State) is a good team; they play hard and compete. … Watching them in the conference tournament, they were in that for a reason.”
“They’re a physical team, well-coached,” McCollum said. “It’ll be a very difficult game to start our season, but we’re excited and we’re ready.”
Northwest tabbed as No. 1 in the NABC Preseason Coaches Poll, marking the fifth consecutive year the Bearcats graced the spot at one point in the season.
Hawkins said the squad is hoping to translate that ranking into a first-place product on the court this season.
“We don’t really make a lot of it. I feel like we’ve given that effort this preseason and this start of the season before games,” Hawkins said. “(McCollum) loves to talk about it during practice though. He’ll always tell us if we have a bad drill or something, ‘You’re not playing like a championship team right now.’”
One of the biggest changes compared to prior seasons is the fact that there weren’t any exhibition games to allow McCollum to see what his squad will bring to the court. The team has realized that, but the Bearcats don’t care.
They’re hoping the preparation during the offseason, along with the work they’ve put in since official practices started Oct. 15, is enough to get off to a hot start while seeking their third title in four complete seasons.
“Last year we started out at Duke; I don’t think you’re going to find much better competition than getting to play them,” Hawkins said. “This year, we’ve had three extra weeks to prepare for our first game because we didn’t get the tournament we normally do in St. Joe. So, normally at this point in the year, we’ve played five or six games. Now we’re going into conference play straight off of the bat, and you’ve just gotta prepare the best you can in practice.”
The Bearcats can’t control Northeastern State having to postpone. The Bearcats won’t be able to control if they, too, eventually have to postpone. There are, however, a few things Hawkins said the Bearcats are in control of throughout this season’s journey.
“You can always control your attitude and effort,” Hawkins said. “That’s the biggest key for us going into this weekend.”
And as peculiar as the season is shaping up to be without having started yet, Hawkins said basketball isn’t the only thing that feels unusual compared to life before March. He’s hoping to have a sense of normalcy when returning to the court, and hopes to stay there for the entirety of the season.
“I don’t know that the MIAA feels any different; I think it’s more just — life, honestly,” Hawkins said. “Everything is not what we’re all used to, it’s different. Basketball is going to be that silver lining for a lot of people, I hope, and I’m one of them, so I’m excited for a chance to play.”