With roughly half a month’s worth of games remaining in its conference season, Northwest men’s basketball is nearing the completion of its regular season gantlet.
The No. 1 Bearcats (23-0, 13-0 MIAA) have navigated through their season unerringly, generally dismissing conference opponents with ease. More often than not, Northwest has shot the lights out en route to victory.
Every player in Northwest’s lineup, anchored by senior swingman Joey Witthus and freshman guard Trevor Hudgins, is shooting at least 51 percent from the field. Four of the team’s five starters (Witthus, Hudgins, sophomore Ryan Hawkins and junior Ryan Welty) are shooting at or above a 40.4 percent clip from three.
“That’s really big for us,” Witthus said. “I always say this, but just the different threats that we have on offense is good for us. People know when to take good shots. The unselfish play we have really pays off.”
Despite the Bearcats’ outlandish shooting stat lines, there have been games when their collective shot has eluded them. Northwest shot 33.8 percent against Northern State Nov. 3. The team shot 44.3 percent Jan. 9 versus Emporia and shot just 40.7 percent from the field Feb. 9 against Lincoln.
In those three games, Northwest’s worst three shooting performances of the year, the Bearcats won by a combined 40 points. Even when their shot abandons them, the Bearcats find ways to win.
“I think, in particular, that Lincoln game, we never turned it around in regards to hitting shots,” coach Ben McCollum said of Northwest’s 85-78 win over Lincoln Dec. 6. “We were still tough enough to maintain a positive attitude and have that good energy and that competitive spirit to be able to win.”
McCollum said the team’s mental toughness has been paramount this season in winning games in which Northwest’s shot isn’t falling.
“I think maybe in years past we might have gotten overwhelmed with frustration, where we’re doing all the right things and it’s still not going in for us,” McCollum said. “Sometimes you can get frustrated with that process when you don’t see the results right away. Our kids just kind of stay with the process, hoping the results will take care of themselves.”
In some ways, the most impressive part of Northwest’s perfect start to the season has been its ability to grind out wins despite poor shooting. In the Feb. 9 matchup with Lincoln, Northwest shot 18.5 percent from three and 40.7 percent from the field, a less-than-stellar shooting performance for the team.
Despite their inadequate 5-of-27 showing from beyond the arc, the Bearcats took an 18-point victory over the Blue Tigers, and according to Gyrate Stats, averaged 1.23 points per possession.
“We didn’t start out very good, and they took an early lead,” Witthus said of the matchup with Lincoln. “Shots weren’t falling for us, especially from three. I think it showed a lot of maturity from our team, especially with how young we are, being able to adjust.”
Much of Northwest’s offense all season has revolved more around unselfishness than it has the ability to shoot. In a way, the Bearcats’ starting five is able to shoot so well because each player is focused not on shooting, but finding the best shot.
For McCollum, the aforementioned trait comes with the culture surrounding the program. The energy Northwest’s players bring to the team every day has driven it forward, propelling the Bearcats to the longest winning streak in the nation.
“I think they asked (NBA coach) Brad Stevens once, ‘How do you get your guys to dive on loose balls?’” McCollum said. “And he said, ‘Well, I recruit guys who dive on loose balls.’ And that’s a big part of it. If you recruit enough of those guys, then the culture will drive others that don’t naturally do that to do it. … It’s almost positive peer-pressure if you will.”
That culture has delivered Northwest to where it is now, where the team is used to being: sitting atop the MIAA and all of Division II. McCollum has said all season that being ranked in the top-five nationally incites opposing teams to gameplan differently than normal in preparation for Northwest, doing whatever they can in an attempt to take down a powerhouse.
Now, as the Bearcats continue to inch towards and into the postseason, they’re used to taking everyone’s best shot. They hope that’s something that will help them in the coming weeks despite the unpredictability of tournament play.
“You just control everything that you can control,” McCollum said. “But then there are other variables in a tournament setting where it’s just like, ‘just one of those nights,’ you know? And you hope that you don’t have one.”
Results from Wednesday’s matchup with Central Missouri were not available upon publication. Visit nwmissourinews.com for a recap of the game.