Northwest men’s basketball heads into a weekend matchup with Midland College Dec. 1 on the heels of its most convincing victory of the young season.
The No. 2 Bearcats (7-0) demolished Tabor College (3-6) 93-43 at Bearcat Arena Nov. 23, picking apart the Bluejays while shooting 57.6 percent from the field. The game allowed Northwest an opportunity to develop its depth, something that has been a point of emphasis for coach Ben McCollum and company so far.
Freshman guard Xavier Rhodes, senior forward Dray Starzl, junior forward Tyler Dougherty and sophomore guard Daric Laing all logged double-digit minutes in the contest off the bench while highlighting the increased focus the Bearcats have placed on depth this season.
“Depth for us is different than depth for others,” McCollum said. “Some people like depth because they don’t have a lot of separation between eight and 10, so they just play 10 guys. For us, our big thing is, at some point, No. 8, 9 or 10, they’re going to win us a game. But in order to do that, they have to play.”
The Bearcats were supposed to take a step back this season after graduating the remaining nucleus of the 2017 NCAA Division II National Championship team last spring. Despite facing the challenge of replacing four of its five starters, including three-time MIAA Player of the Year Justin Pitts, Northwest has shown no signs of diminishing.
Still, the team is focused on growth. McCollum has continued to stress that his team is nowhere near where it needs to be. The Bearcats take each practice in stride and enter each game with a goal of improvement.
“With this group, it’s consistency,” McCollum said. “If you have one emphasis today, get a little better at that, and then continue to get a rhythm offensively and defensively, then that’s our goal.”
For Northwest, the win column paints the picture of a team that has realized its full potential, while McCollum has underlined the opposite. The Bearcats are playing well more often than they aren’t, though their coach worries that the continued winning could mask potential problems.
Northwest’s growth this season has been measurable, though McCollum is unsure if it is where it needs to be.
“I don’t know,” McCollum said. “Wins can kind of make you not see things that you should be seeing. And so, I don’t know. I guess it probably remains to be seen as we progress as to who we play. I enjoy this team. I think sometimes they (the Bearcats) have trouble being consistent in practice. I think sometimes they get a little bored with the process… I think comes with experience and understanding that, ‘Hey, these teams can actually beat you if you don’t prepare the right way.’”
One of the biggest keys for Northwest’s sustained success this season has been the emergence of sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins. While freshman guard Trevor Hudgins has led the team in scoring and garnered the most attention throughout the Bearcats’ hot start, Hawkins’ presence and performance cannot be ignored.
“He’s got a motor,” McCollum said of Hawkins. “He’s constant. When you become a good rebounder, in order to do that you have to have that motor, you have to go every time. He just has always embraced that.”
Hawkins, a native of Atlantic, Iowa, leads Northwest and the MIAA in rebounds with 77. After spending all of last season in a reserve role, the sophomore has averaged 15.3 points and 11 rebounds per game so far this season while starting every game.
“Rebounding-wise, that’s fantastic,” McCollum said. “He has the ability to stretch the floor, and then defensively, his length causes a lot of issues, just being able to get hands on balls, which helps us a lot.”
Hawkins deflected credit for his accomplishments and the team’s success to his teammates, as he’s done all season. The forward even chalked up his own rebounding to the performance of his peers and McCollum’s coaching.
“What makes a really good rebound? Having nobody around you,” Hawkins said jokingly. “No, just getting your man, getting him blocked out and everybody else doing it. It takes all five guys to get a good rebound. I think Mac’s emphasized it this year a lot on defensive rebounding, it’s been a focus in practice the last few weeks, so I think that’s transitioning into games.”
While the Bearcats seek continued growth and the development of depth, Hawkins has helped lead them to a perfect record through the season’s first seven games. As Northwest nears the start of MIAA play, they’ll go into each game hoping to leave the court a better team than when they stepped onto it.
The team will look to do so again Dec. 1 when the Bearcats host Midland College at Bearcat Arena.