As rivalry weekend approaches, Northwest men’s basketball is operating on a normal basis.
In the midst of a 16-0 start, and after being showered with individual awards over the week including an MIAA Player of the Week award for senior Joey Witthus and having three players named on the Bevo Francis Award watchlist, the Bearcats are not stopping to reflect or dwell.
For Northwest (16-0, 6-0 MIAA), it is business as usual. Entering its Jan. 19 matchup with Missouri Western (8-9, 2-4 MIAA), the Bearcats’ vision will remain tunnel-like.
Despite Witthus, sophomore Ryan Hawkins and freshman Trevor Hudgins all being recognized as top-100 players in Small College Basketball, Northwest will not hang its hat on what it has accomplished so far by any stretch. The past does not matter, just what’s coming next.
“I’m not a big individual award person,” coach Ben McCollum said. “I think a lot of individual awards come because of your team’s success. I’m very excited for those three (Witthus, Hawkins and Hudgins), but I think those three would be the first to tell you that a lot of those individual awards come from the team.”
Wittus echoed the team-first sentiment when talking about his dynamic play of late. The senior swingman has averaged 29 points per game over the last week.
“It goes back to my teammates,” Witthus said. “Our offense has so many weapons. We have so many different options out there that we can go to. It’s truly special because it’s just not one person.”
When giving an opportunity to highlight individual players in their absence, McCollum’s praise was directed more-so toward the team, as it always is. He acknowledged the remarkable play of three of his team’s brightest stars and raved about the sustained winning culture entrenched in the program.
McCollum is aware that his continued highlighting of “culture” has grown into a coaching cliché, and in a way, he’s embraced it.
“It’s obviously become completely and totally cliché, the ‘culture wins’ thing, but I think what that means is it kind of continues itself; it sustains itself, the way we have built it,” McCollum said.
McCollum cited the team’s continued success following the departure of last year’s senior players in his case for a maintained winning culture.
“I always say that you can tell the success of any program or business or anything like that, is when one person leaves, how does that program continue?” McCollum said. “Did they make it better by them being there? And I think (last year’s) senior class can say that. The program is better because they were here.”
Northwest’s youthful core seemed destined to disappoint following the run of last year’s aforementioned senior class. The program graduated Brett Dougherty, Chris-Ebou Ndow, Xavier Kurth and Justin Pitts last spring, the nucleus of a National Championship run. Pitts won the Bevo Francis Award in 2017 and was a finalist in 2016 and 2018.
The general projection for Northwest this season was a step back. McCollum said in the aftermath of Northwest’s Jan. 9 win over Emporia State that at 15-0, the Bearcats had likely already exceeded all external expectations.
Internally, that narrative is different.
“I’ve just never been a guy that looks to see, ‘Well, how do I think I’ll do this season?’” McCollum said. “Usually, I don’t even know what I’m doing that day. My nature is very present. I think we’re a long way away from where I expect us to be, to be quite honest. I think we’re a serious work in progress, and we’ve got some serious deficiencies. But I guess the record says we’re good, so it just depends on how you want to look at it.”
As McCollum puts it, he rarely looks much beyond the game ahead, or perhaps more accurately, much beyond five minutes ahead. The program’s focus remains on improving each week and winning each game. There is no emphasis placed on awards, accolades or age-old rivalries. This is by design.
With Missouri Western looming, this week is no different.
“It is what it is,” McCollum said. “Again, it’s a cliché, but it is another game and your objective is to try to improve. A win or loss versus Missouri Western counts the same as a win or loss versus whoever. It’s all the same.”