On the heels of a second-consecutive weekend at the St. Joseph Civic Arena, Northwest men’s basketball sits on the verge of history.
The Bearcats participated in the Hillyard Tipoff Classic Nov. 8-9 taking on Minnesota-Crookston and MSU Moorhead. The weekend, of course, resulted in another pair of victories for the No. 1 Bearcats (4-0), who fought through first-half struggles en route to a 60-52 win over Crookston Nov. 8 and coasted to a 92-71 win over Moorhead Nov. 9.
A win over Saint Mary would give Northwest its 43rd win in a row, breaking the program and conference record set at 42 consecutive wins in 1929-30.
The win over Crookston, for coach Ben McCollum, was ugly. He said Northwest’s defense was exceptional but its offense fell flat. The win over Moorhead was cleaner, though McCollum said he thought the Bearcats let off the gas after taking a 20-point lead.
“You know, everybody thinks we’re good, and I don’t,” McCollum said. “That’s just my mentality. I’m always trying to find things that we can work on and improve on.”
McCollum said he’s never really satisfied with his team and never really has been. He wasn’t after their 4-0 showing in St. Joseph the last two weekends. He wasn’t after a 6-point loss to Duke Oct. 26. Even while cutting down nets in Evansville, Indiana, in March, in the aftermath of Northwest’s second NCAA Division II National Championship in three seasons, McCollum said he never experienced the feeling of satisfaction one might have expected him to.
“No — there’s never a sense of arrival,” McCollum said. “It’s on to the next. On to the next season. It’s what you do. I think if you rest on too much of what you’ve accomplished, again, I think you become so result-focused.”
No sense of arrival should be scheduled for Northwest’s home-opening matchup against the University of Saint Mary (Kansas) Nov. 14, with the Bearcats on the verge of breaking the 90-year old record conference consecutive wins record. A win over Saint Mary would give Northwest its 43rd win in a row, breaking the program and conference record set at 42 consecutive wins in 1929-30.
McCollum, of course, pays no mind to the records and accolades that have aligned with his coaching tenure, something he iterates and clarifies every time prompted. The records serve as a symbol of a well-executed process. The coach’s focus is on the latter.
“For us, to accomplish it — it’s exciting, it’s cool,” McCollum said. “But, it’s more cool the way we went about doing it. And that’s more what we try to focus on, is that piece of it, but It does send a message that says, ‘That’s impressive, you know, wow, that’s a lot. And what are these guys doing that everybody else isn’t?”
The upcoming matchup with St. Mary and Northwest’s Nov. 21 contest with William Jewell represents an early lull in the team’s scheduling. Both lower-Division II schools will receive a guaranteed sum of money just for showing up, depicting the challenges teams like Northwest face when scheduling out of conference opponents.
The games, though, will also provide an opportunity for Northwest to play in front of its home crowd at Bearcat Arena, where the team has gone 109-9 since the start of the 2011-12 season, in a low-stakes environment ahead of the upcoming MIAA gantlet.
“It feels pretty good,” sophomore guard Trevor Hudgins said. “We’ve all been wanting to get it rolling, start playing at Bearcat (and) see if we can get some fans out to the Thursday game, but we’re just ready.”
The Bearcats haven’t matched up with Saint Mary since 2007 when they beat the Spires 93-32. With the out of conference schedule ahead, McCollum hopes to have the opportunity to go deeper off his bench, something he said Northwest planned to do in its matchup with Crookston but never had the chance.
Through four games this season, Northwest has leaned mostly on a core of six players, in part due to a season-ending injury suffered by guard Kirk Finley in the Bearcats’ exhibition loss to Duke. Finley, a senior, tore his ACL on a non-contact play in the matchup, leaving the guard sidelined and Northwest’s coaching staff handcuffed.
The path forward, so far, has been to utilize a more traditional starting five than Northwest did last season, wheeling out a starting lineup that includes Hudgins, sophomore guard Diego Bernard, junior forward Ryan Hawkins and senior forwards Ryan Welty and Tyler Dougherty. Wes Dreamer, a true freshman forward out of Nebraska, has served as the sixth man for Northwest.
The core is small, of course, but it’s been effective. Hawkins has already set a new program-record for points in a single game with 44. Bernard scored a career-high 24 points in the matchup with Moorhead, where Welty shot 4-of-5 from three and hung 17 points on the board. Hudgins is averaging more than 20 points per game and has shot 51% on the year.
And even in the matchup against Moorhead, where the team shot 55.6% from the field and led for the entirety, McCollum expected more.
“In regards to a sense of arrival or kind of feeling a sense of, I guess, feel-good, you don’t ever feel that, really,” McCollum said. “I think the coaches that feel that are probably result-focused and, generally, they’re not in coaching very long. I just stay to stay pretty process-focused.”
With a 90-year-old record in reach, Northwest is, of course, focused on the process. It won the Bearcats a national title in 2017 and another last season, even after the departure of the winningest class in program history. It won them games they should have lost last year, McCollum said, even games as late as the MIAA tournament in early March. It’s won 42 games in a row for the program. It seems destined to win at least one more.