Two marquee basketball programs squared off at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, Oct. 26 in a matchup that pitted a tested lineup against a band of mostly inexperienced players.
The exhibition matchup redefined the word “exhibition.” It was Ali versus Frazier. It was reigning champions versus Final Four flameouts. It was Northwest men’s basketball versus Duke. And in reality, it was never supposed to be close, but it was.
In their season-opening exhibition contest, the Bearcats traveled to Durham to face off against the Division I powerhouse Blue Devils and walked away with a narrow 69-63 loss to the same team that beat them 93-60 in 2017.
In the days before the matchup, coach Ben McCollum joked that Northwest’s objective against Duke was to avoid total embarrassment. More seriously, though, McCollum said the team expected to provide the Blue Devils with a workout of sorts. He hoped the Bearcats would play well for 40 minutes.
They did. Northwest shot 44.1% from three and pushed the Blue Devils to the brink of defeat. The Bearcats were within five points of Duke with less than a minute to play. They were a Trevor Hudgins three-pointer away from a one-possession game with 10 seconds left.
Hudgins, Northwest’s sophomore point guard who scored a game-high 27 points, heaved a shot toward the rim from near half court with the game clock winding down. It bounced off the back of the rim, and with it, Northwest’s chances of an upset.
“We got a couple stops in a row, and Trev was just hitting threes,” sophomore guard Diego Bernard said. “And then when he shot that almost-half-courter, everybody thought it was going in. We were just watching the ball and then it bounced out. Unfortunate bounce, but it was cool.”
McCollum said Northwest didn’t expect to win the game, of course, but the team entered the contest striving to — something the Bearcats do in every game. The close loss came with a certain degree of luck. Northwest hit shots, Duke missed layups, “and all of sudden, you’ve got yourself a game,” McCollum said.
Bernard and McCollum both said the Bearcats entered the matchup trying to win. The box score tells the same story. McCollum used just seven players in 40 minutes, the same number of players he utilized in the Bearcats’ national title win in March. He only used six players for the last 35 minutes of the Duke game after senior guard Kirk Finley went down with an injury.
“Oh, yeah. It was close enough that we were gonna, yeah, we were gonna play — we were gonna play it like a real game,” McCollum said. “It was close enough that I felt like those six were playing well and could kind handle that moment a little bit and I thought they did a great job of it.”
The game was the most extreme example of a purposely difficult early-season schedule for Northwest. On the heels of the Duke matchup, the Bearcats will travel to St. Joseph, Missouri, Nov. 1-2 to partake in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic, squaring off against Daemen College and Southern Nazarene.
Daemen and Southern Nazarene are each ranked in the top 20 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ poll, a poll Northwest sits atop. Daemen is ranked No. 22 and Southern Nazarene, which went toe-to-toe with the Bearcats in last season’s regional semifinal game, losing 70-59, begins this season ranked No. 9.
McCollum said Northwest’s participation in the SBC Hall of Fame Classic is intentional, that scheduling tougher opponents, in his experience, pays off down the road. It did last season. Northwest’s closest matchup of the year was its first — a 72-70 overtime win against Northern State Nov. 3 in the Hall of Fame Classic.
“They’re good,” McCollum said of Northwest’s upcoming opponents. “Both of ‘em.”
McCollum said Northwest’s focus in St. Joseph will be on improving and learning more about itself, on perfecting what he calls “the process” and on developing depth. The coach only utilized six players for much of the Duke matchup, in part, he said, because only six players could handle it.
“We’ve got to be ready,” Bernard said. “I feel like it’s good to go out, tough schedule to start, knowing that you can’t take no plays off. … I feel like it’s gonna make us better toward the end of the season when it really counts.”
In some ways, the Bearcats have been in this position before. Northwest won the NCAA Division II National Championship in 2017 and returned four of its five starters the following fall. The team entered the season as favorites to repeat but took a 27-4 route to an early playoff exit in a season marred by injuries to guard Justin Pitts.
Last season, McCollum said it would have been nice to have Hudgins, who redshirted throughout the 2018 campaign, on the active roster in the wake of Pitts’ injury. But the lesson the coach learned from 2018, he said Oct. 29, had nothing to do with his liberal use of redshirts or his roster construction.
“I learned that you need to make sure you have fun during the season,” McCollum said. “That’s important. … I think, again, if you get so results-focused, that’s when you can break. So we’ve tried to have more fun than usual, even, to try to keep it light and to keep that pressure off those guys. (We) try to make sure they understand that they don’t have to do anything more than who they are.”
For the Bearcats, playing to their own capabilities has worked fine. Doing so was good for 38 wins and zero losses a season ago. In their upcoming trip to St. Joseph, their focus will remain on that — following the same formula that resulted in an undefeated season the last time around.
Northwest’s first objective at the Hall of Fame Classic, McCollum said, is to study themselves and to grow over the weekend. Winning, in this instance, is secondary, though it’s still a part of the mission. The Bearcats intend to learn. They don’t intend to lose. They never have, McCollum said. It isn’t who they are.
“We know and feel that we are (the best team in the country),” Bernard said. “We take the floor every day thinking that we’re not going to lose. We just go out there and execute that game plan that Coach Mac gives us. We just go to war with anybody.”