In mid-December, Northwest Missouri State stood atop the top-25 poll. No news there, the Bearcats were on their way to another national championship in football.
But on this day, the perennial football power shared the attention of national supremacy. The men’s basketball team had climbed to the top of Division II and has remained there since, taking an 18-0 record into Saturday’s MIAA contest at Missouri Western.
When Northwest Missouri State became the first school in Division II history to hold the top-ranking in football and men’s basketball, hoops coach Ben McCollum didn’t wave off or downplay the attention.
“We like to put the pressure on our players, not hide from anything,” McCollum said. “It says you’ve got expectations, pressure, and if you don’t want that don’t come to Northwest.”
The Bearcats are playing with a resolve, not just to maintain their status but to outdistance the finishes of their previous three seasons. Northwest was the regional runner-up, one game away from the Division II Elite Eight, in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“What we’re doing this year is building from past teams,” said senior forward D’Vante Mosby, who played at Fort Osage High and William Jewell before spending the past two seasons with the Bearcats.
Those three regional final losses were by a combined eight points.
In 2014, Northwest fell by one point in overtime to Central Missouri, which went on to win the national title.
Last season, the Bearcats dropped a two-point decision to eventual national champion Augustana, S.D.
Four top returning players from Kansas City have experienced some or all of the season-ending heartbreak. Beside Mosby, senior forward Zach Schneider was a Sunflower League player of the year from Shawnee Mission East, senior guard Anthony Woods starred at Park Hill South, and junior Justin Pitts was a lightly recruited point guard from Blue Springs South who is the reigning MIAA player of the year.
The 5-9, 143-pound Pitts had a couple of NAIA offers, and McCollum had doubts on his first scouting mission.
“To be honest, the first I watched him, I didn’t think he was good enough with his size,” McCollum said. “But we kept checking him out and brought him in for a visit.”
That visit proved to be an important day in the progress of McCollum’s program. Pitts visited along with Schneider, and in pickup games, the duo played well together.
“We were doing pick-and-rolls, and things were working,” Pitts said. “We were doing literally the same things we are doing now.”
From that visit, Pitts accepted an offer from Northwest. The Bearcats were already set at point guard during Pitts’ freshman season, although he was so good in practices that McCollum nearly pulled his redshirt.
Pitts was terrific from the outside, averaging 17.2 points, and was named MIAA freshman of the year (following Schneider in that distinction).
Last season, Pitts increased the production to 21.7 points per game and takes averages of 20.0 points and 5.4 assists into Saturday’s game. He’s deadly from the field, hitting 44 percent of his three-pointers and 47.9 percent for his career.
“He has a high basketball IQ,” Mosby said of Pitts. “He knows what to do with the ball, knows how and when to give it up. I’ve been playing against him since middle school, and he’s always been good.”
But going 18-0 takes a team effort, and eight Bearcats average at least 15 minutes per game. They’re not a big team, but the Bearcats are terrific offensively, averaging 82 points while shooting 52.9 percent from the field. And they get the job done on the defensive end, too — opponents average 61 points and shoot 41.9 percent.
“We’ve been able to compete at a high level consistently,” McCollum said.
It’s about getting the ending right. Northwest could run into a hot team or a shooter in the tournament. An injury could be disruptive. The ball could bounce the wrong way.
All or some of those factors have contributed to the Bearcats’ previous postseason exits.
“But this season feels like something special,” Mosby said.