Ben McCollum, and his players alike, expect to take every team’s best shot each time they step onto the court. That’s something the coach of Northwest men’s basketball has reiterated during the Bearcats’ run of dominance, and something the players have adopted as well.
The No. 3 Bearcats (10-1) aren’t expecting that to be any different when they hit the road this week to start a stretch of three games in five days.
“I think the biggest thing for me it just means more games,” senior forward Ryan Hawkins said. “I think it gives us a reason to be excited for five days in a row as opposed to having an off day.”
Before the season started, the MIAA knew the possibilities of having to reschedule games due to COVID-19 protocols. Throughout the early parts of the winter and deep into it, the league has continuously turned to Tuesday as the day to make up postponed contests.
The Bearcats were supposed to do so last week, which would’ve marked the first time Northwest completed the three-game, five-day format that most teams around the league have already had to face at some point this year.
After a positive COVID-19 case among Missouri Western’s program canceled the matchup for Jan. 19, the Bearcats avoided that. Now, barring any other postponements, they’ll have to do it for the first time.
“I think we just got to lock in mentally,” Hawkins said. “When you have that many games in a short amount of time, your preparation’s got to be that much quicker and that much more focused.”
They’ll start the trip away from Bearcat Arena Jan. 28 against Lincoln, a team that’s ranked fourth in the MIAA standings. In their first meeting of the season Dec. 5 in Bearcat Arena, Northwest won 84-54. But things have changed for the Blue Tigers since then, and they enter the matchup as winners of five of their last six games.
Lincoln (7-3) didn’t have junior forward Derrick Woods when they traveled to Maryville; he just played his first game of the season Jan. 21. In the two games since arriving this year, Woods has averaged 20 points and 6 rebounds.
“They’re better,” McCollum said about the Blue Tigers. “They’ll be good. I mean, they’re shooting it well, playing with a lot of confidence. … It’ll be tough. We’ve just got to get after them, defend and hopefully score enough points to win the game.”
Despite the addition of Woods, who has played a crucial role in the Blue Tigers’ last two games, McCollum isn’t expecting anything different than the first time around from Lincoln. He noted that most teams with the success that Lincoln has come across don’t switch up, more so try to just better execute the original gameplan.
The second edition of the weekend’s trilogy features the Bearcats traveling to Warrensburg, Missouri, to face Central Missouri. The Bearcats defeated the Mules 74-67 in the first meeting Dec. 3, but that game doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the one that happened the last time Northwest made the trip to face Central.
Central handed Northwest its first loss in 46 games Dec. 7, 2019, a 71-60 loss that the Bearcats are trying to assure isn’t replicated.
“Last year we just played, by far, the worst game I can remember playing at Northwest,” Hawkins said. “We’ve just got to prepare for it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The conclusion of the road trip includes the Bearcats’ first matchup of the season with Missouri Southern, the program Northwest has battled with atop the MIAA for the last few seasons.
It’ll be the first matchup between the two since the Bearcats’ 78-76 win in the MIAA Tournament Championship last season, the final game both teams played before COVID-19 halted the world of sports prior to the Division II Central Region Tournament.
“It’s always fun playing Southern,” Hawkins said. “You know what they’re going to do. Just like every team in the conference, you know what they do and don’t do well.”
Southern (6-6) brings in Cam Martin, a premiere player in the MIAA, and one Northwest has had the best of since he entered the league. He enters the matchup averaging 24.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest.
Martin will be trying to get his first win over the Bearcats when the two teams meet Feb. 2, throwing his best shot at the No. 3 team in the country, and the team now back atop the MIAA standings after Washburn’s second loss of the season Jan. 23 to Emporia State.
The Bearcats aren’t facing anything unfamiliar. They’ve taken the best shot from every team, every game throughout Hawkins’ time at Northwest. He knows it’ll be that way this weekend, just as it has been to every point this season.
He’s not expecting that to change any time soon.
“We kind of have that target on our back and we’ve had that for a few years,” Hawkins said. “I think it just makes it more fun when everyone’s trying to unseat you; it’s just more work for us to do.”