Northwest men’s basketball enters its season with a dramatically different look than it did a year ago.
The Bearcats, now a full season removed from their 2017 NCAA Division II National Championship run, are nearly unrecognizable when compared to their National Championship form.
Northwest graduated four of its starting five last spring, including three-time MIAA player of the year Justin Pitts and Brett Dougherty, who sits fourth all-time in program history in field goal percentage.
Just one player on the roster, junior forward Ryan Welty, logged minutes in the national title game. Welty and senior forward Joey Witthus are the only players who registered a single start a season ago, with Welty starting nine games and Witthus starting all 31 games for Northwest.
“I think there’s some pressure on me to be that guy, but I don’t really see it that way,” Witthus said. “We have so many weapons on offense...so we’re going to try to use those in every way. I'll be up for the role if it comes it my way, but I think the best thing about this team is the versatility we have on offense.”
The start to the season will represent a turning of the page for the Bearcats. Armed with a youthful roster and led by a seasoned coach in Ben McCollum, Northwest will move forward.
“I feel like we’re a work in progress,” McCollum said. “We’re young, we’re extremely fun to be around (and) we play hard. We’re on the edge of greatness, and also on the other edge of absolute disaster.”
The Bearcats’ starting five will likely feature an all-freshman backcourt. Freshman Diego Bernard, graduate of St. Joseph-Lafayette High School, figures to lineup at point guard while redshirt freshman Trevor Hudgins will likely start at shooting guard.
“Both of them, and then (freshman) Xavier Rhodes, just bring a different level of athleticism,” McCollum said. “Diego is very athletic and can really shoot it. Xavier Rhodes can get (to) a lot of places on the floor, and Trevor can do a little bit of everything. Those three will cause a lot of issues once they mature a little bit offensively.”
Sophomore Ryan Hawkins figures to round out the starting five as forward along with Bernard, Hudgins, Witthus and Welty. With just two upperclassmen in the starting five, the youth movement will be a storyline as the Bearcats progress through the season.
“We just play with our emotions,” McCollum said. “It’s just youth; that’s what youth does. It’s just a work in progress when you have younger kids. But I love our group. They’re hungry, they’re fun, they want to do well, they want to please--now it’s just about putting it all together.”
The young Bearcats enter the season ranked No. 5 in the NABC Division II Coaches Poll and will begin their season with a pair of tough tests at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in St. Joseph. Northwest will face off against Northern State Nov. 3 and defending NCAA Division II National Champion No. 13 Ferris State Nov. 4.
“They’re young and they’re learning, but they’re learning fast,” Witthus said of the team’s young backcourt. “This first weekend, there’s no time to be a freshman. They’re going to step up in big games this weekend.”
Ferris State defeated Northern State in the national championship game in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, March 24.
“It’s been stressful because you have to prepare youth so quickly because of what Northern State can expose,” McCollum said. “They’re so well-coached and so disciplined, and they expose you being undisciplined, that’s how they score. Defensively, that’s how they get stops.”