Regardless of how Northwest men’s basketball plays in its trip to the MIAA Tournament March 5-8 at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri, the Bearcats will likely host the NCAA’s Central Region Tournament at Bearcat Arena March 14-17.
The No. 1 Bearcats (28-1, 18-1 MIAA) are the top-ranked team in the conference, region and country. They’ll be the No. 1 seed heading into the first round of the tournament, where they will match up with the winner of the Central Oklahoma-Lincoln matchup March 5. They’re seeking their fifth consecutive conference tournament victory.
And perhaps that’s what bothers coach Ben McCollum. More than once during his session with reporters at the Northwest Athletics media luncheon March 3, the coach referenced a podcast he’d listened to and a Bible verse he’d read, a nod to both Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett and Proverbs 27:21.
“Praise is the test of man,” McCollum said.
Northwest isn’t short on praise heading into the conference tournament. The Bearcats won their seventh consecutive regular-season conference title Feb. 20. They’ve won 66 of their last 67 games. They’ve been ranked inside the top five nationally for the entirety of the last two seasons.
Northwest fared better than any other team in the MIAA when conference awards were announced March 3, with sophomore guard Trevor Hudgins claiming the MIAA Player of the Year Award, edging out teammate and junior forward Ryan Hawkins, who settled for the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award for the second year in a row. And there is McCollum, who won his sixth MIAA Coach of the Year award, marking his second win in a row and his fifth in the last six years.
McCollum, though, said he prefers his back against the wall. He’s not convinced Northwest’s security atop the NCAA Central Region rankings will benefit his team in its trip to Kansas City.
“If we were result-focused, yes,” McCollum said. “But we’re process-focused, so no. It does nothing for us.”
“I don’t know, it’s probably a disadvantage more than an advantage,” McCollum said. “I guess some of those teams will play tight, but I don’t know, they’re playing with house money. If they win, there you go. … It’s easier to motivate yourself through adversity. It’s very difficult to motivate yourself through a lot of success, a lot of it.”
Entering the conference tournament, McCollum and company are once again trying to chart their way through the win-or-go-home gantlet without a reason to, trying to sustain the success that, at times, seems unsustainable.
A season ago, en route to a 38-0 record and an NCAA Division II National Championship win, the Bearcats nearly fell in the first round of the MIAA tournament to Emporia State, squeaking past the Hornets with an 82-79 win for their 30th win in a row.
The near-loss represents a reality McCollum said he hopes his team has grasped by now, that any team can beat Northwest on any given afternoon, particularly in the early stages of a win-or-go-home tournament. First-round games, McCollum said, bring a renewed sense of energy that can surprise even him at times. Northwest needs to be at its best, he said.
In the last two games of their season, the Bearcats dominated Missouri Western in a 92-69 win over the Griffons Feb. 25 in St. Joseph, Missouri, before earning a gritty 69-61 win over Washburn Feb. 27 at Bearcat Arena.
The pair of wins depicted the best and worst of what Northwest can be. The Bearcats played at an elite level for both halves of the Western matchup and the second half of the game against Washburn, McCollum said. But the first half against Washburn, he said, was troubling.
“We can play really well and we can play really bad, is probably what it tells me,” McCollum said. “We can win tough games and we can take ourselves to an elite level if we choose. Hopefully, we choose to do that down there. … One of those halves can cost you the season.”
Facing a group of reporters at the luncheon, McCollum sat alongside Northwest women’s basketball coach Austin Meyer and reminisced about the darker days of the program he leads. Meyer, who’s in his second season as the women’s coach and just earned his first tournament bid, served as an assistant on McCollum’s staff from 2008-2018.
The pair reflected on the early going of McCollum’s tenure, when Northwest went 10-16 in the coach’s second year, when McCollum worried about job security and had more hair on his head. McCollum said he was comforted back then by the faith Meyer had in their process. Meyer said he’s comforted now, leading an 11-17 team, by what he learned then.
“In those first two years, we worked really hard,” Meyer said. “And he worked as hard as anybody. And you knew he cared about every little thing in the program.”
McCollum said he’s grateful for the losses back then that stacked up more than he would have liked in his first two seasons. He retold a version of the same story he’s told at times over the last two seasons, expressing sadness for coaches who finish in third and fourth place early in their careers.
“You don’t realize how far away second is from first,” McCollum said. “That distance is shocking compared to second versus seventh. You are so far away from first. There’s so many little things that need to go right for you to get first place.”
The distance between Northwest and the rest of the MIAA has been present for much of the last five years. It was evident a season ago when the Bearcats went undefeated. It was evident when the conference awards were announced March 3. McCollum hopes it’s still evident March 8 in Kansas City, when a conference tournament champion is crowned and the win-or-go-home games start for Northwest.