Diego Bernard

Northwest sophomore guard Diego Bernard claps his hands while transitioning back on defense in Northwest's 83-57 win over Fort Hays State Jan. 25 at Bearcat Arena. 

Riding a 10-game win streak into an MIAA road trip, Northwest men’s basketball finds itself ranked No. 1 again in this week’s NABC Division II Top 25 poll, a ranking that Northwest’s coaching staff said means nothing.

The Bearcats (18-1, 8-1 MIAA) are coming off one of their best offensive performances to date after an 83-57 thrashing of Fort Hays State Jan. 25, one that coach Ben McCollum said served as a step in the right direction after a series of close MIAA matchups, including a 5-point win over Nebraska-Kearney Jan. 23.

But McCollum, of course, was quick to note Jan. 28 that the game did not serve as a turning point, and if it did, he wouldn’t be sure until several months from now. His team, McCollum said, has not yet arrived at where it’s headed.

For McCollum, the Bearcats’ 52.8% field goal percentage against Fort Hays does not matter. Neither, he said, does the feat that lies ahead of Northwest. The team could surpass the 20-win mark for the ninth year in a row over the weekend with wins over Newman (8-12, 2-9 MIAA) Jan. 30 and Central Oklahoma (7-13, 4-7 MIAA) Feb. 1. But McCollum said he’s not enamored with the potential accomplishment or even concerned with winning the conference matchups. His focus, per usual, is elsewhere.

“It’s probably more important that we play well,” McCollum said. “It’s just — you have to play well. You have to practice well. You have to get better and it has to be every single day. And if we do that, then I’ll feel good about things.”

The week ahead for Northwest poses a unique set of challenges. The team’s on-court opponents, at least on paper, are inferior. But, assistant coach Zach Schneider said, there is a certain degree of difficulty that could come with Northwest’s road trip through Kansas and Oklahoma, one that has followed the team all season.

On the heels of a 38-0 campaign that ended with an NCAA Division II National Championship win, Northwest has not played with the chip on the shoulder that helped drive and define the team a season ago.

Sophomore guards Diego Bernard and Trevor Hudgins, for example, had never lost a collegiate game before Northwest fell to Central Missouri Dec. 16. The natural hunger that came with a low external expectation last season is no longer present, Schneider said. His sentiments have been echoed by McCollum throughout the season.

The challenge ahead for Northwest, one the team has dealt with at times this season and will deal with again in Wichita, Kansas, in its matchup with Newman, is getting up for a game that not many fans will watch, getting energized for a matchup with a preconceived lack of energy.

“You’ve got to create hunger,” Schneider said. “It’s one of the toughest things to do in sports, is (to) create hunger when it’s not necessarily there.”

“You’re going to Newman on a Thursday night — probably going to be a dead gym. These guys just played in front of 5,000 in the Ford Center five months ago,” Schneider added, referring to Northwest’s national title game in Evansville, Indiana, 10 months ago.

Schneider said he thought Northwest’s win over Hays was the team’s most complete offensive effort of the season. Against the Tigers, the Bearcats started to do what they have at times struggled to this season. They played like the team they are now, not the team they were a season ago.

Schneider said teams within the MIAA have developed new defensive schemes in attacking Northwest’s offense, sending help defense into the lane, in part to account for Northwest’s pair of dynamic sophomore guards. The switch, which inherently comes with the decision to leave players like senior forward Ryan Welty and junior forward Ryan Hawkins unguarded on the wing, was recognized and exposed in the matchup with Hays, where Northwest shot 16-of-33 from deep.

“(We found) a rhythm that I said we’ve been searching for probably the last month or so,” Schneider said. “Just driving more-so to pass than to score.”

For McCollum, the win over Hays did not represent in the solving of a puzzle, but rather, just fitting two pieces together toward a larger picture. The win, he said, did come not come with any form of arrival or with any turned corner, but it helped the coach find answers to the questions that have weighed on him for close to a month.

McCollum is still unsure what the answer will mean in the larger scheme of the season. The Bearcats’ last game of the season will say more, depending on when and where it comes and whether or not they win.

“You won’t know until the end,” McCollum said. “That’s what my assistant always said. It’s like, ‘Well, what do you think?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. We’ll find out.’”

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