For the second time in two years, Northwest men’s basketball will take on Minnesota State-Mankato in the first round of regional play in the NCAA Division II Tournament.
A season ago, the No. 1-seeded Bearcats hosted the No. 8 seed Mavericks and were sent home early with a 60-50 loss. This year, the Bearcats hope things are different, and in some ways, they already are.
Northwest entered last year’s matchup with the winningest senior class in program history leading the way and a season removed from a national championship run. The class’s standout senior guard Justin Pitts missed the game with a toe injury, and the Bearcats shot poorly en route to the 10-point loss on their home court.
Now, the Bearcats (32-0) possess a drastically different lineup, featuring two freshman guards in Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard. Still, the young Bearcats inched their way through a perfect regular season and escaped the conference tournament unscathed for the fourth consecutive year.
Hosting the Central Region in the tournament for the third year in a row and matching up against Minnesota State for the second straight year, some things for the Bearcats feel similar, but the intangibles are unfamiliar.
“It always feels the same,” coach Ben McCollum said. “You have a whole week to prepare, and so, you don’t want to overdo it, but you also don’t want to underdo it. I think last year will help us quite a bit just preparing for any kind of random deals defensively.”
Entering the tournament, these Bearcats seem to be a revised and updated version of themselves. Led by senior swingman Joey Witthus, who transferred from Minnesota State following the 2017 season, Northwest is playing at a high level, one that seems to border on absurd.
Four of Northwest’s starters average double-digit scoring, led by Witthus’ 20.9 points per game total. Bernard and Hudgins are averaging 11.8 and 18.7 points per contest, respectively, while sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins has scored 18.8 per game with an average of 9.0 rebounds.
The only starter not averaging double figures is junior forward Ryan Welty, who leads the team in three-point percentage, shooting 50 percent from deep. The Bearcats completed a 19-0 sweep of the MIAA this season and swept the conference’s regular season awards before sweeping their way through the tournament, too.
Further, the Bearcats have won 32 consecutive games. They’re 87-5 in their last 92 home games, and they’re 94-5 overall in the last three seasons.
In short, they win at a higher clip than any team in college basketball. That’s why, McCollum said, Northwest is confident and hopeful headed into the win-or-go-home tournament.
“I think the Missouri Western game helped us more than anything, just because we weren’t overly prepared,” McCollum said, referencing Northwest’s close 70-88 win over the Griffons Feb. 26. “The other part of that is: we still won. And so, we can play, essentially, poorly offensively and still win games. We need to take that with us and understand that in that in the postseason.”
A win-or-go-home format brings an added sense of pressure for the Bearcats. But the game plan will not change, McCollum said. The Bearcats haven’t lost a game in over a calendar year — to change things now would be nonsensical.
“It’s all the same,” McCollum said. “You have to compete as hard as you possibly can, and that’s why we try to do that all season long so (in) these games there’s no added pressure. We’ve done this all year long.”
Hawkins, who won the MIAA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award for his regular season campaign that included 71 steals, echoed a similar sentiment. The Bearcats’ focus remains on what lies directly ahead.
“I think we’ve just been excited for the game in front of us and the practice of the day and stuff like that,” Hawkins said. “I think by breaking off smaller and smaller bits, it’s easy for us to focus and get prepared… Losing sucks, so you want to keep winning.”
Northwest doesn’t have any grand scheme planned to fight their way through the matchup with Minnesota State or beyond, rather, the team is focused on the task at hand and the intangibles it can control. For McCollum and company, the best route through the tournament lies in effort and preparation.
“For us, it’s more ‘just compete as hard as you can,’” McCollum said. “You can’t really control whether you win or lose. When you try to control whether you win or lose, outside of just controlling the controllables, I think you have a lot more issues. We just need to control the controllables, so that’s all we’ll do.”
As the team inches its way toward tip-off with Minnesota for the second time in two years, its focus will remain on making history, not repeating it.
“Losses aren’t fun,” McCollum said. “That’s why we don’t do it very often.”