TOPEKA, Kan.— Northwest men’s basketball completed its regular season with a perfect record after beating Washburn 72-49 for its 29th-consecutive victory Feb. 28.
The No. 1 Bearcats (29-0, 19-0 MIAA) started their season with a tightly-contested 72-70 overtime win over Northern State Nov. 3. Since then, the team has done nothing but win, tearing its way through its schedule with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points per game.
Northwest’s 19-0 conference record is unprecedented in the MIAA. But, the Bearcats hope their flawless regular season is just a stop on the road that is headed towards the postseason.
“We’ve got bigger goals than that, obviously,” coach Ben McCollum said of the team’s perfect season. “But in probably most of these guys’ lifetime, from here on out, I don’t know how many times you’re going to see a Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA-- at any level in college a team go undefeated in the regular season.”
One game removed from an improbably-close 70-68 win over Missouri Western Feb. 26, the Bearcats left any doubt behind them in the matchup with Washburn. The Ichabods (21-4, 14-4 MIAA) possess the second-best record in the conference and are ranked as the No. 2 team in the NCAA Division II’s central region.
In the aftermath of the Western game, McCollum hoped the Bearcats would thank the Griffons for the close call so late in the season, predicting it could act as a teaching moment for Northwest.
Following the matchup with the Ichabods, the Bearcats obliged.
“I think the Western game was a really good learning experience for us,” junior forward Ryan Welty said. “It was a really close game, which was good for us because we hadn’t had a lot of those this year. We learned a lot from just winning that game, so I think that helped a lot.”
Against the Griffons, the Bearcats missed open shots and played subpar defense. In the matchup with the Ichabods, Northwest flipped the script, shooting 47.62 percent in the second half after starting the game somewhat cold and holding Washburn 28.6 percent shooting from the field.
“We were better today,” McCollum said. “We competed today. We were locked in defensively, we were locked in offensively … If you play with fear on defense, you don’t play very well. If you play to get the stop, you play a lot better, and I thought we did that tonight.”
Northwest was led offensively in the game by senior swingman Joey Witthus with 19 points. Sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins nearly double-doubled with 18 points and nine boards, while freshman guard Diego Bernard grabbed 10 boards.
Witthus, who transferred to Northwest before the 2017-18 campaign after two seasons at Minnesota State, has been Northwest’s leading scorer more often than not this season. He described Northwest’s perfect regular season as outstanding.
“This is a great moment,” Witthus said. “To go undefeated in the regular season, (it’s) just a really special moment for us. We put in a lot of hard work. This is a great group of guys, showing up every day to work hard. It’s a fun accomplishment, but obviously, we want more than that.”
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Northwest’s unblemished regular season is how unlikely it seems in retrospect. Four of the team’s five starters have never seen significant regular playing time at the collegiate level and the Bearcats’ starting backcourt, comprised of Bernard and guard Trevor Hudgins, is made up of freshman.
McCollum said externally, most people thought the program would take a step back. The Bearcats embraced an underdog role throughout.
“They play with a chip on their shoulder,” McCollum said of the Bearcats. “They just play with that weight the whole time. You saw it tonight. You saw the doubt probably creeps in again against Missouri Western. (The Bearcats) just put that chip right back on their shoulder and came out and competed.”
The Bearcats, who were picked by both the MIAA Media and Coaches’ polls to finish second in the conference, and entered the season ranked fifth in the nation, have exceeded every expectation over the course of their 29-game gantlet. Every expectation, that is, except those set by themselves.
“It’s probably my nature to not really look forward,” McCollum said. “I believed that we could win. It’s one of those deals that if you go into the preseason and you say, ‘Ah, let’s go 26-3.’ OK, well what three games are you going to lose? Your whole goal is to win every single game, and that’s just what our kids did.”
Despite McCollum’s hesitance to look much beyond the game in front of him, the Bearcats are undoubtedly looking forward to what lies ahead in the MIAA tournament. Northwest will be seeded No. 1 in the conference tourney and expect to get the alternating defensive schemes thrown at them by their familiar opponents as they have all season.
“We know that every game from here on out is going to be a tough one and a battle,” Witthus said. “We know that we’re going to get everyone’s best shot, so we’ve just got to work for it each day at practice and be prepared.”
Witthus said the 29-0 season is something to be celebrated, but only briefly. The Bearcats aren’t here to win regular season awards and celebrated conference titles; they’ve got their sights set on something more.
For Northwest, the perfect season will be recognized and applauded, but it won’t be a mark the team hangs its hat on. There’s more work to do.
“(McCollum) will probably let us enjoy it on the bus ride home and then we’ll get back to it tomorrow,” Witthus said. “It’s just a fun moment. It’s just a special group of guys. Everyone’s got the same goal, so we’ll enjoy this, but we’ll come back ready to work.”