Northwest men’s basketball is preparing to set off on a road trip that, on the surface, seems like it should yield two conference victories.
The No.2 Bearcats (17-0, 7-0 MIAA) are one of two remaining undefeated teams in the country, boasting the longest win streak (17) in Division II basketball and the third-longest win streak on the road (8).
Standing in Northwest’s way of a 19-0 record is Nebraska-Kearney (6-11, 1-7 MIAA) and Fort Hays State (12-5, 6-2 MIAA). Fort Hays State alone has lost as many games this season as Northwest has in the last three seasons combined.
By all statistics and logic, the upcoming road trip for Northwest should be as easy as any other for the Bearcats, who have only played three contests this season decided by less than 10 points. Still, coach Ben McCollum doesn’t see it that way.
“I think (Kearney’s) going to be a really difficult game regardless of road, home, whatever,” McCollum said. “They’re just a tough matchup for us. We’re going to need to be at our best to be able to win out there.”
The Lopers accounted for one of Northwest’s four losses a season ago, beating the Bearcats 66-59 in Kearney. In some ways, the first half of the upcoming trip could serve as a revenge tour for the new-look Bearcats.
Despite their excellence on the road over much of the last three seasons, McCollum said there is no added emphasis placed on winning games as visitors. The 8-0 road stretch is just a matter of happenstance.
“We’ve never made a big deal of it, we just kind of go play,” McCollum said. “I think that helps. They count for the same amount of losses as they do at home, so let’s just go win them. That has been our mentality.”
McCollum said the Bearcats seem to play better away from Bearcat Arena at times, for reasons that are beyond explanation. Senior forward Dray Starzl, who has seen limited minutes off the bench this season, shed light on the phenomenon from a differing perspective.
“It’s actually my second time ever going (to Hays), but the stadium is really cool to be in, so that’s pretty exciting,” Starzl said. “Road games are fun for us because we get to hang out with each other, and we all love each other. We bring our own energy to away games, and it’s fun to silence the crowd. It’ll be fun.”
The sometimes-lighthearted atmosphere surrounding the program is perhaps best on display when Starzl is on the bench, often leading celebrations after teammates drain threes or convert crafty layups. From an external perspective, Starzl seems to be the unspoken leader of Northwest’s bench theatrics.
“We don’t plan them at all,” Starzl said. “We just spontaneous(ly) celebrate. I just love seeing my teammates out there succeed, so we just help them out and bring the energy on the bench. (We) make sure they keep going and going and going.”
Despite the enjoyment that comes with cross-state trips, there comes a certain degree of edge and toughness required to play for Northwest men’s basketball. The pressure to perform for Northwest is unlike that of any other MIAA program, and the touted culture surrounding the program is as real as it is talked about.
This is partly why the Bearcats’ roster sits at just 10 players as is, and why McCollum has no intention of changing that until next season at the earliest.
“I’d rather not have anybody than have somebody that I don’t want,” McCollum said. “The guys that I have, I want. I like them. They’re good players. I also think that depth, to a certain level, the way depth is perceived from an external (view) is somewhat overrated.”
On the surface, Northwest’s roster may appear to lack depth. That’s not how McCollum sees it.
“I’ve got 10 guys that can go in the game, and I think I’ve got more depth than anybody,” McCollum said. “To be quite honest, some of the guys that don’t see as many minutes (here) are better than most other people’s starters. It’s quality over quantity in my mind.”
McCollum pointed to Northwest’s unrelenting will to win as a driving factor in the team’s success. The Bearcats claim to take each game as serious as the next, and their perfect season thus far has proved to be a byproduct of that persistent dedication.
“It’s the ability to get up every game,” McCollum said. “I just don’t know that there’s a lot of teams that want to do that, and that want to be great every day in practice, and have that mental toughness to do that. The more that we can get kids that will fight, compete and stay with that longevity piece, the more games we’re going to win.”