Over the last four seasons, Northwest men’s basketball has won 122 games, claimed four-consecutive MIAA regular-season titles, four straight conference tournament crowns and two of the last three NCAA Division II Championships.
Over the last four seasons, the No. 1 Bearcats (22-1, 12-1 MIAA) have lost six games. They have been the top-ranked team in the NCAA’s Central Region for each of the last three seasons. They’ve won at least 20 games in nine consecutive seasons.
But over the last four seasons, there has been one team in the country that’s been able to match Northwest’s prowess, at least in a head-to-head setting. Missouri Southern (18-4, 11-2 MIAA) has split its last six matchups with Northwest. The Lions account for three of Northwest’s six losses in the last four campaigns. They’re the only team to beat Northwest twice in four calendar years. And they’ll host Northwest Feb. 13 at the Leggett and Platt Athletic Center in Joplin, Missouri.
“Well, they’ve been good,” coach Ben McCollum said. “And I think we’ve been good. And so, that’s why they were able to beat us. I don’t think it’s necessarily a specific matchup thing or anything like that, it’s just that they’re good. And so, we’re gonna need to make sure that we’re at our best to be able to beat them down there.”
The matchup in Joplin, of course, comes with heavy conference implications. Trailing Northwest by one game in the conference standings, Southern will matchup twice with the Bearcats in the next two weeks. Each team still controls its own fate.
Still, the margin for error for both Northwest and Southern is thinning. The top-ranked teams are the only two in the MIAA to clinch spots in the conference tournament March 4, but their seedings within the tournament still hang in the balance. Additionally, the right to host the NCAA Central Region tournament remains at stake.
But McCollum and company aren’t letting on to any increased focus or sense of urgency. The Bearcats’ hopes of becoming the first team in MIAA history to win seven consecutive regular season titles may hinge on their next two weeks of play, with two pairs of matchups against Southern and Pittsburg State (9-13, 5-8 MIAA) looming. They are preparing for the increasingly vital matchups with the same consistently calm manner they have applied all season.
“We just gotta play well,” McCollum said. “I mean, you can’t control the conference implica — like, you have to play well to win the game, so it’s, again, things you don’t need to worry about. … If you just worry about what you can control then the results will take care of themselves.”
These Lions, though, are different than the version of Missouri Southern that beat Northwest in three out of four matchups from 2017-2018. There is no C.J. Carr, the former dynamic point guard that led the Lions in scoring in each of Southern’s wins. But there is Cam Martin.
Martin, of course, is the 6-foot-9 junior forward who led Southern to an NCAA tournament berth a season ago, one that ended in a 12-point loss to Northwest in the Central Region Championship March 19 in Bearcat Arena.
The 240-point forward has averaged 22 points and 9 rebounds per game this season while leading Southern to an 11-2 mark in the conference. In the days of Carr, McCollum was always able to counter with former point guard Justin Pitts, the three-time MIAA Player of the Year who kept Carr from winning the award.
Now, though, McCollum has no definitive frame to matchup against Martin. There are no 6-foot-9, 240-pound post players on Northwest’s roster. There aren’t many at the Division II level anywhere.
McCollum was coy about what player or combination of players he might use in an attempt to guard Martin. He asked for suggestions from reporters at the Northwest Athletics weekly media luncheon Feb. 11 on how to contain the post player. He said the Bearcats learned a lot from their matchup with Southern in the regional tournament, where they held Martin to 20 points and forced him to foul out. But whether senior forward Tyler Dougherty or freshman swingman Luke Waters or junior forward Ryan Hawkins or sophomore guard Diego Bernard might draw Martin remains unclear.
“I’m always excited to play,” said Hawkins, the reigning MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, in reference to a potential individual matchup with Martin.
“We’re putting Trevor (Hudgins) on ’em,” McCollum said, referring to his sophomore point guard who is listed at 6-foot and who is decidedly shorter than 6 foot.
It’s possible, though, that increased external focus on Martin is overblown. Unlike Carr, the junior forward has never walked onto a court with Northwest and walked off with a win. He’s 0-2 in his career against the Bearcats and wasn’t overly effective in either matchup, averaging 15 points per game across the two contests.
While it’s McCollum taking advice on how to defend Martin, it’s still the Bearcats that haven’t lost to a team with an overly dominant post player in more than a year.
The contest ahead, and the sequel scheduled for Feb. 20 at Bearcat Arena, could provide a postseason-like atmosphere for the two teams which seem bound for the NCAA’s playoffs for the second straight year. McCollum and Hawkins both, though, were uninterested in the increased fanfare that might surround the upcoming matchup in Joplin.
Hawkins said the number of fans in a given gym and which team those fans cheer for don’t affect the way he plays the game. And McCollum disagreed that the upcoming matchups with Southern and Pitt State, led by former Division I coach Kim Anderson, would serve as any sort of dry run for the postseason.
As they ready for a trip through Joplin and Pittsburg, Kansas, the Bearcats cannot be focused on getting ready, McCollum said. He hopes they’re already there.
“I think at this point in the season, if you’re not ready now, then you’re probably not gonna be ready,” McCollum said. “I don’t think it impacts it one way or the other outside of just making sure you start to peak towards that postseason.”
The Bearcats appear to be hitting their stride as the regular season winds down.
The entire starting lineup has shot at least 50% from the field and from beyond the arc in the last five games. The Bearcats have beat their last five opponents — all conference foes — by an average of 28.2 points per game. But McCollum isn’t convinced his team is peaking at the right time, he said. He won’t know until the end — whenever that might come.
“I don’t know, ’cause it’s not the right time yet,” McCollum said. “I feel like we’re right where we’re supposed to be.”