The last time Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum faced a group of reporters at a Northwest Athletics media luncheon, his team was 34-0 and preparing for the NCAA Central Region Championship March 19.
McCollum did so again Oct. 22, a full seven months removed from the press conference that prefaced Northwest’s regional title and, of course, its NCAA Division II National Championship win in Evansville, Indiana, March 30.
The month is different. The group of reporters he faced is different. His roster makeup is different. His next opponent is different. McCollum was the same.
McCollum joked about Northwest’s upcoming exhibition matchup with Division I powerhouse Duke Oct. 26. He laughed with women’s coach Austin Meyer and reporters. He complimented one reporter on his shoe game in the middle of answering a question. And he was overly modest about his team’s capabilities.
“I don’t know (how we’ll do without Joey Witthus) because we haven’t played a game yet,” McCollum said. “I think offensively we’re a work in progress. Defensively, it stays pretty consistent in what we do, so I don’t think there’ll be much change there. But we just need to find an offensive identity, and hopefully, we’ll do that here through this preseason.”
Witthus, of course, was the senior anchor of Northwest’s offense a season ago. He averaged 21.1 points per game last year and grabbed the MIAA Player of the Year award, along with several national honors, while leading the Bearcats to a national title.
Northwest’s lineup will look different without him, though McCollum was coy on who might replace his workload. The Bearcats’ four returning starters from the championship core, a group that includes sophomore guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard, junior forward Ryan Hawkins and senior forward Ryan Welty, should all assume their places back in the starting five.
The calling card of Northwest’s offense a season ago was its ability to space the floor and the ability of all five starters to shoot the ball from beyond the arc. The Bearcats’ lineup, most times, lacked a true center, something that could change this season.
Northwest Athletics’ media notes listed senior forward Tyler Dougherty, the closest player to a true center left on Northwest’s roster, as the man set to round out the team’s starting five. McCollum, though, wouldn’t budge.
“You know me, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do in five minutes,” McCollum said.
He jokingly listed Northwest’s returning starters as players who would “probably” see playing time this season, along with Dougherty and senior guard Kirk Finley.
“Then we’ve got some — we’re not going to tell you about the other guys,” McCollum said. “Some excitement there, right?”
McCollum knows Northwest’s upcoming trip to Duke will serve more like a workout for the Blue Devils and a wakeup call for the Bearcats more than it will a real competition for either team. The objective, he said, is the Bearcats to play as well as they can for 40 minutes. It’s the one specific game this season he said he’s excited for.
The expectation is for Northwest to lose in North Carolina. The expectation for the season is much different. Internally, McCollum said, there isn’t one. But he’s aware of the immense pressure his program faces from the outside, pressure the program has felt for the last five years or so.
Northwest is 100-5 since the start of the 2016-17 season. The team has won at least 20 games in eight straight seasons. McCollum, who said he’s one of the most competitive people he knows, doesn’t revel in the pressure by any means, but it comes with the territory.
“Even before last season, when we had lost our entire team, I had people (saying), ‘Hey, we already got our reservations in Evansville,’” McCollum said. “‘What? Do we play in Evansville?’ And that was before the season even started. I’ve said it before: if you don’t like it, then don’t play at Northwest. If you don’t like expectations, if you don’t like pressure, don’t come here.”
On the heels of a championship run, McCollum is unsure if his team will show signs of complacency. The program, from top-to-bottom, works to fight it every day, McCollum said. The team that went 38-0 a season ago is trying to get better.
The core of a national championship is returning to the hardwood still focused on the process, McCollum said. They’re determined to exceed expectations that border on ridiculous and locked in on fighting the notion of complacency.
And they’ll head to North Carolina for Homecoming weekend, where they’ll more-than-likely lose a game for the first time in 19 months.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” McCollum said. “It’s fun.”