When members of the Northwest men’s basketball program arrived at the College Basketball Experience Oct. 12 in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, it marked the first in-person MIAA Basketball Media Day in two years.
“I want to thank the MIAA for putting this on. Also, I’m very thankful to all of the administrators … for last season,” Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum said. “We were able to get in all of our games, and I’m not sure there’s a lot of leagues that were able to do that. I think our kids really appreciate the fact that they were able to play basketball.”
McCollum and company will enter the 2021-22 season following the program’s third national title in the last four tournaments, including back-to-back championships in 2018 and 2020.
The domination throughout the last few years led to the Bearcats being voted No. 1 in the MIAA Preseason Polls by both the coaches and the media. The ’Cats received all first-place votes, except for the one McCollum had to cast, which he gave to Washburn.
But Northwest will prepare for the upcoming year without one of the most notable players in the history of the program for the first time since 2017: Ryan Hawkins.
After the NCAA granted 2020-21 student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 modifying schedules, the forward elected to enter his name into the transfer portal in early May. A week later, he committed to the University of Creighton.
That doesn’t matter for Northwest, though, because sophomores Wes Dreamer and Luke Waters are hoping to have breakout seasons.
“I mean, we’ve got Wes Dreamer and Luke Waters, who have both stepped up,” junior guard Trevor Hudgins said. “The whole team is stepping up right now. Me and Diego (Bernard) are just maturing, growing more into leadership roles every day. … I don’t think anything’s gonna change, for real. (Hawkins) was a great player, but I feel like our program’s in good hands.”
Hudgins is coming off a season in which he was named the NABC Division II Player of the Year, making him only the second person in program history to receive the honor.
The NBA Draft prospect told ESPN at the end of last season he was returning to Northwest for one final year of collegiate basketball, and he knows that he’ll have a target on his back throughout the entirety of this season. He doesn’t care.
“Everyone goes at us, regardless,” Hudgins said. “It’s not even just me; it’s the whole team, I feel like. I feel like even coaches just want to beat Coach Mac, like it’s not even just their team — their players wanting to beat us — it’s their whole organization. … I feel like our whole team has a chip on our shoulder. I mean, we’ve been getting everyone’s best shot since I’ve been here.”
The men will start their season against reigning NSIC powerhouse Northern State Nov. 6 at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at the Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
It’ll be a rematch of the Central Region title game, when the Bearcats rallied from down 11 with three minutes left in regulation to defeat the Wolves 91-86 in overtime at Wachs Arena in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
So, when his program takes the floor for the first time this season, McCollum is expecting nothing short of a game that’s similar to the matchup between the two programs in March.
“If anybody saw the Northern State game last season, when we were down 11 or 12, it will be a rematch of that,” McCollum said. “We’re excited to be able to play in (the Hall of Fame Classic) and have been the last few seasons.”