Northwest men’s basketball hasn’t lost a game in more than a year and a half. The team has won 40 games in a row, 33-straight on neutral floors and 24 consecutive games in November. The No. 1 Bearcats are 102-5 across their last four seasons.
Coach Ben McCollum doesn’t care. Statistics, he said Nov. 5 at the Northwest Athletics media luncheon, don’t do it for him. In the wake of another pair of Northwest neutral-floor November victories over the weekend, both wins that came over ranked opponents, the only figure the coach was hung up on was 88 points allowed.
Northwest moved past No. 22 Daemen College with an 85-65 victory in the first game of its regular season at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in St. Joseph, Missouri, Nov. 1-2. In their second game of the Classic, the Bearcats shot lights out en route to a 100-88 win over No. 9 Southern Nazarene. The point total allowed to Southern Naz is what stuck with McCollum through the weekend.
He asked media members and Bearcat Sports employees when the last time Northwest allowed 88 points in a contest in his opening statement at the Northwest Athletics media luncheon. The question went unanswered. No one knew.
“Been a long time,” McCollum said.
It’s been two and a half years. The Bearcats haven’t allowed 88 points since they lost 88-71 to Missouri Southern Feb. 18, 2017. They haven’t allowed more than the total since they fell 91-71 to the Lions Jan. 17, 2011, when McCollum was in his second year as head coach and sophomore guard Trevor Hudgins was in middle school.
The statistic, of course, doesn’t mean much. Northwest allowed 88 points to Southern Naz and still escaped with a 12-point win. They shot 58.7% from the floor and watched junior forward Ryan Hawkins drop a program-record 44 points. The stat does provide insight into McCollum’s focus.
The statistics and records that hang above his program don’t ever tend to surprise him, he said. Northwest is two wins away from tying a 90-year-old conference and program record, on the cusp of a 41st and 42nd consecutive victory. For McCollum, it doesn’t matter.
“They don’t really do ‘em for me,” McCollum said. “If I was from the outside looking in, I would say, yeah, that would be shocking, like, ‘wow.’ From the inside-out, essentially, I don’t even pay attention. It doesn’t excite me.”
Then the coach talked about what would do it for him, about what might excite him. McCollum joked that Hawkins executing an after-timeout play would do it. He said having a good practice Nov. 5 would too. Seeing his former players after graduation does it for him, he said. The list went on. Statistics and records weren’t on it.
The accolades that have come with McCollum’s 10 years at the helm are cool, he said, but have never been his focus. He said he’s process-oriented, regardless of the outcome. And sometimes, he said, failing is what gives way to a successful process.
The Bearcats lost 31 games in McCollum’s first two seasons with the program, 27 of which came in the MIAA. They lost more conference games his first two years at the helm than they have in the eight since.
By McCollum’s own evaluation, he was a bad coach. And after two national titles, a bevy of conference and national awards and 40-consecutive wins heading into the Hillyard Tipoff Classic in St. Joseph Nov. 8-9, he’s glad he was.
“I’ve always said that I actually kind of feel bad for coaches that finish third and fourth and fifth (in) their first couple years or first year, because they’re always good enough that they won’t really evaluate what they’re doing,” McCollum said. “And so, by getting absolutely destroyed for two seasons, losing eight, nine in a row, at one point my second year, I had to really soul search. … I think that helps you become that much better.”
The Bearcats lost six in a row in McCollum’s second year and went on to lose seven of eight. Tucked in the middle of the losing skid was the loss to Missouri Southern, in which the Bearcats allowed more than 88 points, something they haven’t done since.
After eight seasons and after Northwest’s 2-0 start this year, McCollum remains focused on improvement. The Bearcats have to be better defensively, he said, and they can’t give away possessions.
“Just early-season stuff,” McCollum said. “You know, closing out games. (The) first game, in particular, I think we won by 20; we probably should have won by 30. There were some wasted possessions down the stretch.”
The weekend, though, came with more good news than bad. The Bearcats earned two victories that McCollum called “huge.” Hawkins scored 68 points across two games and shot 70% from three. Hawkins, Hudgins and sophomore guard Diego Bernard were all named to the Hall of Fame Classic All-Tournament Team.
“I’m just glad we got out of there 2-0,” Hawkins said. “I think all six of us played really well. I think we learned a lot about each other and just what this year is going to be like.”
Through two games this season, along with Northwest’s exhibition matchup against Duke, McCollum has leaned heavily on a cast of six players, a group that played the entirety of the matchup with Southern Nazarene. McCollum said Northwest could go further off the bench this weekend, with that outcome dependent on which players earn it.
For Northwest, of course, the plan is to improve at the Tipoff Classic in its matchups with Minnesota-Crookston Nov. 8 and Moorhead Nov. 9. The two teams, McCollum said, will provide the Bearcats another pair of early-season tests and that they’ll have their hands full in the upcoming contest.
Through two games this season, Hawkins has looked to be the de facto head of Northwest’s offense, replacing a void left by 2018 MIAA Player of the Year Joey Witthus, though the junior forward doesn’t see it that way.
In the aftermath of both of Northwest’s two victories, Hawkins credited Hudgins and Bernard for drawing defensive attention and providing him room to shoot. Again Nov. 5, he praised the pair of guards and senior forward Ryan Welty for keeping defenses preoccupied.
Hawkins didn’t intend on scoring 44 points in the matchup with Southern Nazarene, he said. He didn’t even know he had 44 until the game was over. He’s not sure what the upcoming Tipoff Classic holds for himself or Northwest, and he’s not sure if defenses will keep leaving him unaccounted for.
“I hope so,” Hawkins said.