Ben McCollum

Northwest men's basketball coach Ben McCollum has led the program to a record of 132-6 over the last five seasons. McCollum is the fourth-winningest active coach in the NCAA with a minimum of 10 seasons with a winning percentage of .782.  

Northwest men’s basketball junior guard Trevor Hudgins was amid a 46-game win streak, looking to make it 47, when the Bearcats traveled to Warrensburg, Missouri, to play Central Missouri Dec. 7, 2019.

As the final seconds dwindled off the clock, Hudgins lost his first game as the starting point guard at Northwest, with Central winning 72-60. The guard said it was something bound to happen given the level of competition that the MIAA presents every game.

“If it didn’t happen then, we were damn near immortal,” Hudgins said. “I knew it was going to happen sometime. Not to be negative, but every team in this conference is good, and it was just — that night.”

Now, the No. 1 Bearcats (1-0) are preparing for their home debut of the 2020-21 season Dec. 3 in Bearcat Arena, which happens to be another matchup with the Mules (1-2).

Northwest will be 362 days removed from its first and only MIAA loss in the last 51 games when the Mules visit Maryville, but the thought of that lone game hasn’t gone anywhere.

“I would say we’ve still got that loss in the back of our mind,” Hudgins said. “That little blemish kinda haunts us a little bit. It just motivates us, too, at the same time.”

The Bearcats eventually avenged that loss with an 81-47 win over Central two months later during their final meeting of the 2019-20 season in Maryville.

They’re hoping to avenge the postseason run they never got last season due to COVID-19 putting a halt to the world of sports, which effectively ended the Bearcats’ quest for their third national title in four years.

They were slated to host the Division II Central Region Tournament in Bearcat Arena, which was scheduled to start March 14. The home debut will be the first game action in Bearcat Arena since Feb. 27.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to play outside competition,” Northwest men’s coach Ben McCollum said. “We’re excited about the chance to play a conference game and, obviously, play at home.”

The same pandemic that ended the Bearcats’ season in March is the same one still impacting their competition in December.

McCollum has noticed teams across all divisions of the NCAA struggling at the start of the season, something that he’s referred to as “COVID fog.”

“It seems like a lot of teams in the country are experiencing it,” McCollum said. “Kids get into the game and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re actually going to play. This is wild.’ All they hear is ‘COVID-this and COVID-that,’ and it makes it difficult to stay present. The mentally tough teams are the ones that are going to be able to win championships at the end.”

He’s hoping the Bearcats aren’t affected by the fog. Instead, he’s hoping they add to their 24-game win streak, which is the third-longest across all levels of the NCAA.

They’ll, of course, have the opportunity to do that against the Mules, a team Northwest has played 224 times. Central has the upper hand in the all-time series with a record of 124-96 against the Bearcats. However, Northwest has taken nine of the last 10 matchups.

“We just try to treat every opponent the same,” McCollum said. “It’s not necessarily a rivalry for us. It’s, ‘Hey, we get to compete. Let’s go out, play somebody with a different color jersey and see what happens.’”

McCollum knows that the Mules are going to be a tough out, despite their losing record after the first couple of weekends of the season. He knows it won’t be easy — mostly because there’s no telling what the MIAA has in store.

After the loss to Central last year, McCollum referred to it as the perfect storm in regards to everything going right for the Mules and everything going wrong for the Bearcats. However, he knows there are things Central will bring to the table in their first meeting of the season.

“They defend at a high level,” McCollum said. “They’re long, athletic and got some good guards. Obviously, they beat us last year, so they’ll have the confidence in knowing that they can. You have to get on ’em early and hope your effort can outweigh theirs.”

Among a season already affected by an ongoing pandemic, the haunting of their lone loss in the last 50 games and the stout competition of the MIAA, McCollum is hoping none of that matters when the Bearcats face the Mules. He’s hoping to add another notch in the belt that is Northwest’s winning streak.

“Hopefully we get ourselves to a high level and make sure we eliminate all excuses of COVID, or whatever it may be, and come out there and fight and compete,” McCollum said.

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