Northwest men’s basketball has been burned by injuries before.
One suffered by Dillon Starzl in the former forward’s last season helped end Northwest’s run in 2014. A lingering toe injury to former guard Justin Pitts in 2018 ended what could have been a second-consecutive run toward an NCAA Division II National Championship. A lower-body injury to graduated forward Joey Witthus last season nearly derailed a championship season in the Elite Eight.
Each time the team has been marred by injuries in the last decade of basketball, it’s been coach Ben McCollum’s job to guide the program forward, to right an ailing ship, to get the best 40 minutes of basketball possible out of the players who are healthy enough to play.
“Yeah,” McCollum joked. “Every year, for the most part.”
The challenge for McCollum and company has been the same to start the 2020 stretch of their season. The No. 2 Bearcats (15-1) started the new year with five games in 11 days, all of which resulted in Northwest wins and all of which came on the heels of a 12-day break.
An early-season, season-ending injury suffered by senior guard Kirk Finley Oct. 26 had already left McCollum shorthanded and handcuffed for the duration of the season. In the wake of Finley’s ACL tear, the coach leaned on a core of six players for the first few months of the season.
For Northwest, the situation worsened Jan. 6 when senior forward Ryan Welty, who McCollum referred to as “Mr. Dependable,” took an elbow to the face in the early-going of Northwest’s 74-55 win over conference opponent Rogers State, leaving Northwest without its leading minute-logger for an indefinite amount of time.
The injury has left McCollum with one more position to fill in a season that has served as an endless juggling act for the 11th-year head coach. It’s left a void to fill within a starting lineup now made up entirely by non-seniors. And it’s left a roster of eight active, healthy players thrust into major roles, roles they’ve taken in stride without losing a game since the injury to Welty.
There are, of course, the guys that McCollum has leaned on all season, fixtures in the starting lineup before and after injuries. There is junior forward Ryan Hawkins, who has played more than 34 minutes per contest. There is the pair of sophomore guards in Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard who have each averaged more than 33 minutes a game.
And then there are the other guys; the up-and-coming-freshmen and the former benchwarmers who have suddenly found themselves as staples in Northwest’s lineup and gameplan, who have been deployed as Band-Aids in McCollum’s efforts to stop the bleeding.
They are true freshman Wes Dreamer and redshirt freshman Luke Waters. They are the next men up.
“That’s tough,” McCollum said. “That’s tough. Those kids are freshmen, and they’re having to come in and play four games in eight days, roughly, and having to perform and take everybody’s best shot. And I thought they did a great job of that.”
Dreamer, a native of Alvo, Nebraska, is not so new to this. He hit a three at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Northwest’s October matchup against Division I powerhouse Duke. He has logged minutes in each of Northwest’s 16 games. But he has been utilized more specifically, and perhaps leaned on more heavily, in the aftermath of the injury to Welty.
Somewhat ironically, though, Dreamer has not made a 3-pointer since Welty first fell to the floor at Bearcat Arena Jan. 6, holding his face in pain before being ushered off the court by Assistant Athletic Trainer Nick Peters. Still, Dreamer has logged an average of 27 minutes per contest since being thrust into the Rogers State matchup, serving as a life preserver for a lineup in desperate need of a break in its five-game, three-day stretch.
And while Dreamer has been a form of dependency in the absence of Mr. Dependable, spacing the floor for Northwest’s pair of sophomore guards, Waters has been a revelation.
The Olathe, Kansas, native has been McCollum’s response to Welty’s absence. He filled in for 34 minutes after the senior left near the six-minute mark against Rogers State, logging what was then a career-high.
“It starts with practice,” Waters said in the aftermath of the Rogers State matchup. “Like, every day, coach preaches, ‘Next man up.’ And when Welty went down I knew that I was gonna have to step up or else we were gonna be in trouble.”
Days after the Rogers State game, Waters found his first career start at Emporia State Jan. 9 and played a full 40 minutes. He started again and played 38 minutes against Washburn Jan. 11, where he logged a career-high 14 points and added four rebounds. Waters has logged more minutes in Northwest’s last three games than he did the previous eight.
“They’re growing up,” McCollum said of Dreamer and Waters on KXVC in the moments after Northwest’s 73-68 win over Washburn. “I think you’re gonna see as the season progresses how much better they get. Again, I’m super proud of them.”
Combined, Dreamer and Waters served as a sort of disaster response tandem, only logging significant minutes out of necessity. McCollum has used just six players in each of Northwest’s last two matchups.
The coach said he didn’t anticipate the pair of freshmen playing anywhere near 40 minutes in meaningful conference matchups, though he never doubted their ability to do so.
They have answered a call that was never expected to come.
“I mean, 40 minutes is a lot of minutes for the No. 2 team in the country,” McCollum said. “So, I guess, did I see it coming? I believe in them, yes. Did I see them doing that? Well, they didn’t play a ton of minutes early in the season, so I didn’t necessarily see it coming.”
It remains unclear when Welty will return to action — McCollum has been reluctant to provide a timeline while indicating that the senior will be healthy again sooner rather than later, perhaps as soon as Jan. 18, when Northwest is set to take on Missouri Western.
“Not sure on Welty — we’ll see,” McCollum said. “You’ll find out Saturday at the deal. That’ll be exciting. At the game.”
In the meantime, the Bearcats have been fine. It’s still been a combination of Bernard, Hudgins and Hawkins, who picked up his third MIAA Player of the Week award after a 32-point outing versus Washburn, who have carried most of the load for Northwest the last three games.
But Dreamer and Waters have been there, of course, and have been impactful. Once passengers in Northwest’s success, it has been the next men up — the other guys — who have stepped in the help drive it.
“Depth is only as good as the top six or seven players that you have,” McCollum said.
In a room full of reporters and media members at Pizza Ranch Jan. 14, sitting next to former men’s assistant and current women’s coach Austin Meyer, McCollum dove into a spiel about the nuances of depth and what it really means, about old philosophies and new.
“If we lost (Justin Pitts), I mean, how are you going to replace him anyway?” McCollum asked to no one in particular. “Like, what am I, gonna bring somebody else in that’s as good as him?”
The coach paused and began to start again before laughing.
“I guess I kinda did,” McCollum said, referring to Hudgins, who went on to replace Pitts after redshirting the 2017-18 season.
And with Finley’s future in question and Welty’s playing time on hold, with Dreamer and Waters making a bigger impact much sooner than expected, perhaps he’s in the process of doing so again.