After fighting its way to a perfect regular season, Northwest men’s basketball is entering a different realm of play.
The Bearcats (29-0, 19-0 MIAA), ranked No. 1 in the nation, will ride the top seed into the MIAA tournament with their regular season accomplishments in the rearview. The seeding has afforded Northwest an immediate trip to the quarterfinals, where the team will square off against Emporia State.
What Northwest accomplished over its stretch of 29 consecutive wins is nothing short of remarkable. The Bearcats played in just five games decided by single-digits and ended their season with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points per game while building the nation’s best record.
But for Northwest, none of that matters as the team begins its postseason slate. The Bearcats fully intend to win the MIAA tournament—even though they’ll likely host the central region in the NCAA Division II tournament regardless—so much so that coach Ben McCollum dismissed the thought of using the early rounds of the MIAA slate to rest his players.
“It’s postseason: you’ve got to win the game,” McCollum said. “(In the) first game, if we’ve got to play who we’ve got to play for 40 minutes, then that’s what they’re going to do. (Northwest’s players) are just going to have to man-up through it (and) be a little bit tired. We’ll be alright.”
With the start of postseason play comes an entirely different atmosphere and schedule for the Bearcats, and with those, an increased focus on winning. Northwest’s first matchup will take place at noon March 7, under the bright lights at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.
For Northwest, though, the nontraditional tip-off time is where the differences stop. The Bearcats plan to attack the game with the same energy and preparation that has already yielded 29 wins this season.
“We put so much emphasis on each game and being ready and being consistent that it doesn’t change for us,” McCollum said. “We’ll be just as ready as we always are.”
The Bearcats won’t prepare any differently for their imminent run through the MIAA tournament, nor will they kick their play into some higher form. Instead, the team plans on doing what it’s been doing.
McCollum said the most effective way to prepare for postseason play is to just play well throughout the regular season.
“Having a good preseason, early-season, mid-season and towards the end of the season, is kind of my thoughts,” McCollum said. “If you try to now prepare and try to get yourself to where you can be ready every day, it’s impossible. I think the reason you’re ready every single day is for those tournament settings where you have to be ready and you have to win games.”
The Bearcats’ consistency and readiness have brought them to where they are now. Northwest has racked up its numerous accomplishments despite possessing a starting lineup with four new starters, including two freshman guards.
Northwest added another round of accolades March 5, when the MIAA announced its annual awards. Senior swingman Joey Witthus took home MIAA Player of the Year, while freshman guard Trevor Hudgins grabbed the conference’s MIAA Freshman of the Year award.
Sophomore Ryan Hawkins won the conference MIAA Defensive Player of the Year award, and McCollum won his fifth MIAA Coach of the Year award.
The awards and the season as a whole have served as a testament to the program’s culture. In a year in which the Bearcats were picked to finish second in the conference by the preseason media poll, they didn’t lose a game.
Witthus winning the conference’s highest honor marked the fourth consecutive time a Bearcat has brought home the award after Justin Pitts won it three years in a row from 2016-2018. Despite the Bearcats bringing home most of the MIAA’s top honors, and despite just wrapping up a perfect regular season, Northwest’s focus remains on what’s next.
“Coach Mac always preaches, ‘We can always get better,’” Witthus said. “There’s always something we can get better at. There’s no settling for anything. There’s always just room for improvement; so that’s what we do at practice each and every day.”
Witthus, who transferred to Northwest from Minnesota State after the 2016-17 season, has been a focal point of Northwest’s offense this year, leading them in scoring more often than not.
“Did we need Joey to get buckets then? Yeah,” McCollum said of the regular season. “Do we need him to get them now? Yeah. We like those all the time.”
After sweeping their way through the MIAA’s regular season gantlet and sweeping the conference’s award in the process, the Bearcats head into the postseason with lofty expectations. They’re the only undefeated team in the country, and opponents have played up to them throughout the season and for most of the last half-decade.
Touting the conference’s highest honors, an unblemished record and the nation’s longest win streak, one might expect a certain degree of pressure to surround Northwest.
“I mean, we’ve been what? No. 5 in the country (after) losing four starters and we’ve taken everybody’s best shot all season long,” McCollum said. “And Diego (Bernard) and Trevor are expected to replace Justin Pitts, and the other guys are expected to be leaders and carry on all this tradition … Then you’ve got an opportunity to go 19-0 and 20-whatever-and-0 we are.”
McCollum said that for the Bearcats, the pressure is the norm. It’s what they’ve faced all year.
“We’ve faced enough pressure that if pressure, at this point, affects us, we’ve got bigger problems,” McCollum said. “I think we should be OK in regards to pressure.”