Entering the season, Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum heard a lot about his team from those on the outside, most of which was negative.
Last spring, the Bearcats graduated much of the core from their 2017 National Championship run, including three-time MIAA Player of the Year Justin Pitts. Externally, most expected, perhaps understandably so, that the Bearcats would take a sizable step back this season.
Now, more than three-and-a-half months after the season’s opening tip-off, the No. 1 Bearcats (25-0, 15-0 MIAA) are one win away from winning their sixth-consecutive regular season MIAA title.
“It’s one of those things that you’ve played the whole season with a chip on your shoulder because of the doubt, the external doubt,” McCollum said. “(Doubters said), ‘You can’t do it with these kids, you can’t do it with freshmen, you can’t do it with younger kids, you lost too much, Justin Pitts was a great player, and you’re not going to be able to do it. Your program’s done without Justin.’”
The team heard it all, McCollum said. But in the face of adversity, McCollum and company didn’t waver.
“You hear that all the time and every day, it just remotivates you,” McCollum said. “When you walk in that gym, that chip’s right back on your shoulder. That’s how it’s been for me all year, at least.”
The program that doubters said was “done without Justin Pitts” is 25-0 and is the top-ranked team in the nation. The Bearcats have bested the program’s previous best start to a season (24-0 in 2016-17), and with a win over Central Missouri Feb. 21, Northwest would be the first team in MIAA history to win the regular season conference title six years in a row.
For Northwest, winning was always the expectation, as it has been over the last half-decade or so.
“Yeah, we expect it every year, absolutely,” McCollum said of winning the MIAA. “That’s the expectation; that’s why you come here. You get to play in big games, big situations, in front of good crowds. Everybody that’s come here in the last six seasons has got to cut down nets.”
It’s difficult to put into perspective the magnitude of what Northwest has done over the last six seasons, and more specifically in this season alone.
No team in the MIAA has won the conference six seasons in a row, a record that dates back to 1925 when the first conference crown was given out, a year that predates the Great Depression and came three decades before the integration of public schools.
The Bearcats are a remarkable 87-5 over their last three seasons, good for a .945 winning percentage. Further, Northwest is the only undefeated team in the country this year across the NCAA Division I, II and III levels.
“If we are able to (win the MIAA), I think this league is as difficult of a league as there is in the country, in Division II in particular,” McCollum said. “There’s really good coaching, there’s athleticism, there’s skill, and on top of it, (we’ve) got that bullseye on our back. For our kids to be able to come out and win at a high level in this league, it’s a big deal.”
Northwest could clinch the conference title with a win in one of its last four games or via a Washburn loss. Still, the Bearcats expect to win as they have in each of the last five seasons, though this season they have done so differently.
For Northwest, the culture is the same, but much of the intangibles are unlike that of years past. The Bearcats field a lineup that is nearly unrecognizable and is executing an offense that lacks a true center.
This season has carried an unfamiliar feeling for sophomore Ryan Hawkins as well.
“It’s kind of neat because there was that good group of seniors two years in a row that had done it before,” Hawkins said. “This year, we don’t have that core group, so it’s a new group of people trying to do the same thing. We’re accomplishing the same goal but we have a different attitude and energy about it. We haven’t done it before.”
McCollum said he sometimes looks back on the earlier carnations of his team at Northwest, where his career as a head coach started 10 years ago with two subpar seasons. Since then, Northwest has been one of the most dominant teams in both the conference and the country.
Looking back is fun and nostalgic, McCollum said, but most days the coach and the program worry less about the past and more about what’s next. A focus on the future is what’s led them to it.
“Basketball is such a difficult sport to be consistently good, because one or two players, losing them can really affect your team,” McCollum said. “To be able to be that dominant in the conference and to have that many people be a part of the success and where this program has gone is very meaningful.”