When he stood up and grabbed the room’s attention for his turn to speak at the Northwest Athletics’ media luncheon Feb. 4, Northwest tennis coach Mark Roswell began a speech that seemed partly planned and partly on-the-fly, one that bordered the line between a rant and a history lesson. None of it was about tennis.
He started the two-and-a-half-minute discourse with the origins of the MIAA. The “M,” he said, used to stand for Missouri. He talked about a historic basketball rivalry between Northwest and Central Missouri, making stops in his own timeline for important events.
The lecture meandered its way from James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, and his coaching days in Warrensburg in the early 1900s, to Henry Iba, who coached the U.S. Olympic team, and his tenure at Northwest. It leaped from the ’30s to the ’70s to the 2010s. It included Kim Anderson, who coached at Central before landing a job at the University of Missouri and Northwest coach Ben McCollum.
The oration was informative and excitable and at times hard to follow.
And it ultimately served as a preamble for what’s next for Northwest men’s basketball by recapping everywhere the program had been in the last century. It served as a promotional speaking engagement for an upcoming matchup. The tennis coach spoke like he was drumming up ticket sales for the basketball team’s next matchup against Central Missouri 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Bearcat Arena.
“What I’m going with here is: there’s two teams left in the MIAA that are original teams,” Rosewell said. “That’s Northwest and Central. What a rivalry here.”
The impassioned speech set the stage for the upcoming matchup, which will pit No. 1 Northwest (20-1, 10-1 MIAA) against the Mules (9-11, 4-7 MIAA). They’re the only team to beat the Bearcats since March 10, 2018.
McCollum, though, refused to build on the hype. There is no extra motivation this week, he said. He’s never considered the historical weight of the two teams who have met 223 teams, he said. He puts no stock into the phrase “rivalry.”
In the 223-game mutual history between the two programs, though, there may be one that sticks with McCollum more than others.
Northwest lost to Central Missouri 60-59 in overtime of an NCAA Division II Central Regional Championship matchup in Mankato, Minnesota, March 18, 2014. Then-senior center Dillon Starzl, who McCollum called the best player on the team, tore his Achilles a few minutes into the matchup. Northwest was able to send the game into overtime without him. But the Bearcats wouldn’t advance any further.
“I remember kind of going to the bench (after the injury) and saying, ‘It’s still no excuse to lose. Like, we don’t have excuses,’” McCollum said. “I mean, it was a brawl. It was a tough, physical game.”
At the end of regulation, Northwest had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer from the corner that could have won the game.
“Missed it,” McCollum said. “And (Central) ended up winning a national title. So, it is what it is.”
The moment propelled Central on a run that ended with a championship trophy. The championship run drove Anderson, who coached the Mules for 12 seasons, into the head coaching job at Mizzou. That season, McCollum said, pushed his program toward what it is now: the No. 1 team in the nation and the reigning Division II National Champions.
It’s Northwest’s status now, though, as a Division II powerhouse that helps explain why the Bearcats fell to Central 62-50 in the team’s last matchup Dec. 16. The Bearcats, of course, played poorly, shooting 36.5% from the field in the game and 24.1% from beyond the arc. But the Mules played better than they tend to, shooting 44% from beyond the arc despite a season average that hovers just above 36%.
“A part of it is, teams want to make a name off of you,” McCollum said. “You guys know who beat us this year. You’re very well aware. That’s what teams want to be — that team that does it.”
Still, McCollum said, there is no added incentive to beat Central Missouri Feb. 6. His team isn’t worried about redemption or a rivalry, one that hasn’t always been much of one for Northwest. The Bearcats were 0-8 in their first eight matchups under McCollum. At 9-11, the coach’s head-to-head record against Central is still under .500.
“I think to say, when I first started, that it was a rivalry would probably be a mistake. I think I was 1-11 in my first 12 against them, something like that. It was pretty bad,” McCollum said. “And then they’d always call it a rivalry because we’d win the league or we’d tie for the league with them.”
“It was like, ‘Well, it’s not really a rivalry because they beat us every time,’” McCollum said. “I think (to be) a rival, you’ve got to win one every once in a while.”
McCollum and Northwest have won nine of the last 11 matchups. The Bearcats haven’t lost two in a row to Central since Starzl tore his Achilles and Anderson left for Missouri. Things are different now, but in some ways, still the same. Northwest is preparing for a rivalry game that doesn’t feel like one.