Welcome to the newest edition of Walk The Talk, where we’ll only talk about one question this week. I know that I’ve received a pretty good amount of phenomenal questions throughout the past week, but I’ve been saving one in particular since the middle of January.
Which team is better between the 2017 and 2019 men’s basketball title-winning teams?
I’ve held this question in my Twitter messages for nearly three months, mostly because I wanted to see how this season ended for Ben McCollum and the Bearcats. Since they dominated their way to the program’s third title, the 2020-21 Bearcats are now included in this conversation.
“It was probably the most difficult one,” McCollum said in the aftermath of the Bearcats’ beat down of West Texas A&M March 25 in the National Championship. “Just in regards to handling success, the emotions of COVID, the emotions of last year — all of those different things — it made it really difficult.”
Obviously, there are a bunch of different factors for each of the three teams, but I broke it down by picking out a few common values from each team to evaluate.
The 2016-17 team, of course, will always be the most memorable because it was the program’s first national title. That team finished with a record of 35-1, with the lone loss coming in the form of a 17-point loss to Missouri Southern toward the end of the regular season. Northwest avenged that loss two weeks later with a 4-point win in the semifinals of the MIAA Tournament.
The first title-winning team beat opponents by an average of 16.2 points.
The 2018-19 team finished 38-0, which is the best season in the history of NCAA men’s basketball, regardless of level. Kentucky finished 38-1 in 2015, Findlay — another Division II program — finished 36-0 in 2009, but there’s never been a team that’s amassed the number of wins the Bearcats did that year without losing a single game.
The second title-winning team beat opponents by an average of 20.7 points.
This year’s ’Cats finished 28-2, and the lack of games was due to COVID-19 forcing the MIAA to limit member institutions to a 22-game, conference-only schedule. Their two losses were both from Washburn. One of them was an overtime thriller in Bearcat Arena, in which Washburn won 84-82. The other was courtesy of a 55-foot buzzer-beater from Tyler Geiman in the MIAA Tournament Championship to beat the Bearcats 69-68.
The Bearcats avenged both of those losses by beating the Ichabods 85-44 in the semifinals of the Central Region Tournament, effectively ending Washburn’s season. They beat Northern State in the final game of the Central Region Tournament, too. Whichever team won that game was going to win the National Championship.
The most recent title-winning team beat opponents by an average of 17.6 points.
Elite Eight Performance
McCollum has, on multiple occasions, mentioned how tough the Elite Eight field was during the first title run. The Bearcats beat seventh-seeded St. Thomas Aquinas 79-70 in the Elite Eight, third-seeded Lincoln Memorial 79-67 in the Final Four and top-seeded Fairmont State 71-61 in the National Championship. Northwest guard Justin Pitts was named the Elite Eight’s Most Outstanding Player, too.
During the final stretch of the 2018-19 season, the Bearcats beat eighth-seeded Mercyhurst 55-51. An important thing to note from that game was that they won without Diego Bernard, the then-freshman who had started a majority of the games that season. After that, Northwest took down fifth-seeded Saint Anselm 76-53 in the Final Four, and did so without Joey Witthus for half of the game due to injury. In the title game, the Bearcats beat sixth-seeded Point Loma 64-58.
Point Loma was led by NABC Player of the Year Daulton Hommes — even though it should’ve been Joey Witthus. Hommes spent a few years in the San Antonio Spurs’ organization before heading to play overseas. So, the level of competition was for sure there, even though Point Loma was the No. 6 seed.
This year, the Bearcats were robbed of the No. 1 seed, which was given to West Texas A&M, but we’ll get to that in a second. Northwest defeated seventh-seeded West Liberty 98-77 in the Elite Eight, third-seeded Flagler 77-46 in the Final Four and then West Texas A&M 80-54 in the National Championship. It was, statistically, the best Elite Eight performance ever, which featured the Bearcats winning the three games by a collective margin of 78 — a new Elite Eight record.
I mentioned earlier that Pitts led the Bearcats during that first title run, and he’s widely considered as one of the best basketball players to ever put on a Northwest uniform. During the 2016-17 season, he averaged 20.9 points and five assists. Not only was he named the MOP of the Elite Eight, but he was named the NABC Division II Player of the Year as well. Chris-Ebou Ndow was on that team, too, and he averaged 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest.
And, of course, that team featured now-assistant coach Zach Schneider, who is the best 3-point shooter in Northwest history. That season, he shot 46% from deep (108-235) to average 9.8 points per contest.
The 2018-19 team included Witthus, who we already mentioned was robbed of being recognized as the nation’s best Division II player, redshirt-freshman Trevor Hudgins, freshman Diego Bernard, sophomore Ryan Hawkins and junior Ryan Welty. Witthus averaged 21.1 points per game that year while shooting 45% from deep. Hudgins tallied an average of 18.7 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 45% from deep. Hawkins had 13.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Welty was 47% from beyond the arc that year. Bernard, in his first year with the program, averaged 11.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
That team had depth with Xavier Rhodes, Kirk Finley and Tyler Dougherty off the bench.
This year’s team also featured Hawkins, Bernard and Hudgins, but with two more years of experience under their belts. Hawkins averaged 22.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 54% from the field and 46% from deep. Hudgins, who was named the NABC Division II Player of the Year, recorded 19.8 points and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 54% from the field and 50% from deep. Bernard contributed 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, and had his most efficient season by shooting 54% from the field.
This team was deep, too, featuring Wes Dreamer and Luke Waters to fill out the starting lineup, along with Byron Alexander, Isaiah Jackson and Daniel Abreu off the bench.
Which is the best?
The best Northwest team from the last decade might be the one that never got a chance to compete for a title. Yes, the 2019-20 team might be the best out of all of them, and the Bearcats never got to hoist a trophy to show for it due to COVID-19.
However, since the question talked about the title-winning teams, we’re going to stick with that.
The better team featured one of the best lineups in the history of Northwest, one of the best point guards to ever put on a Northwest uniform and, of course, Ryan Hawkins. That’s right; it’s the 2018-19 team.
I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to win 38 games in one season without suffering a single loss. The fact that those Bearcats beat teams by an average of more than 20 points is mind boggling, and we’ll maybe never see anything like that season again. The starting five, coupled with the depth, then the pure dominance, is why that’s the best title-winning team at Northwest.
The first team, of course, was dominant as well. The most recent team was, too. So, it’s a toss up between those two for which team is second. On one hand, a team captured the program’s first title. On the other hand, a team played 30 games throughout a pandemic and still managed to dominate during the Elite Eight.
But to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best, and not one team in the country could beat the 2018-19 Bearcats.