College Sports

Efficient offense helps Northwest Missouri State build undefeated basketball season

Another three-pointer for Northwest Missouri

Ryan Welty’s corner three is one of 18 made by Northwest Missouri St. in victory over Pittsburg St.
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Ryan Welty’s corner three is one of 18 made by Northwest Missouri St. in victory over Pittsburg St.

Kim Anderson arrived here with a solid Pittsburg State team on Thursday night, but the Gorillas didn’t stand a chance against the NCAA Division II equivalent of the NBA’s high-flying Golden State Warriors: Northwest Missouri State.

The final was 111-83, and it was over early. The Bearcats opened a double-digit lead three minutes in, with Joey Witthus burying two of his eight three-pointers on successive possessions. Anderson called a timeout, but it didn’t matter.

“It’s fun. We have a lot of fun on this team,” Witthus said.

Winning is a blast, and how that’s happening is making this another memorable season at Northwest. Thursday’s victory improved the Bearcats’ overall record to 20-0. They are ranked second nationally behind Bellarmine (Ky.), and those programs are the only two in NCAA basketball without a loss entering February.

One ratings system has Northwest ranked as the nation’s 48th-best team — across all classifications. Friday’s Massey Rankings, a computer rating system, has the Bearcats one spot behind Clemson and five ahead of Indiana — that would be NCAA Tournament bubble-team territory if Northwest played Division I basketball.

Massey also predicts outcomes and gives Northwest a 25 percent chance of beating Kansas, a 37 percent chance of defeating Kansas State and a 60 percent chance of beating Missouri.

Great seasons at Northwest have become the norm under Ben McCollum, the 37-year old coach now in his 10th season. The Bearcats have won or shared the MIAA regular season championship in six of those years, including the last five.

The pinnacle occurred in 2017, when Northwest captured its first NCAA championship. Two years later, the team is tracking on a similar course with almost an entirely new roster. Three players are common to both teams, and only Ryan Welty, a junior who played at Park Hill South High School, starts.

The names have changed at Northwest, but this team and the Bearcats’ national champion editions have similar traits, Welty said. Marksmanship and ball control may be the most noticeable.

The 2017 Bearcats, led by Division II player of the year Justin Pitts, hit 41.3 percent of their three-pointers and averaged only about nine turnovers per game.

This team enters Saturday’s home game against Missouri Southern hitting 44.4 percent of its three-pointers and averaging about eight turnovers a game. Those figures lead the nation.

These Bearcats also average 88.6 points, 10 more per game than 2017.

“We have great shooters,” Welty said. “It’s a better shooting team than we’ve had in the past.”

Against Pittsburg, the Bearcats knocked down 18 threes and their point total, the best of McCollum’s tenure, produced an amazing 1.48 points per possession.

According to Synergy Sports, a web-based analytics

Northwest’s five starters each shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range, with Welty (50.6) and Witthus (50.0) leading the way. Welty once made all nine of the three-pointers he shot in a game, one away from the Division II record for most made without a miss. He could finish as the Division II career leader in three-point shooting percentage, currently standing at 52.6 percent — the record is 52.5.

Thursday, the Bearcats got plenty of open looks with dribble penetration and kick-outs from the freshman backcourt of Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard. Plus, the guards finish. They combine to average 30 points per game.

Witthus, in his second season after transferring from Minnesota State and the only senior among the team’s starters, had the hottest hand Thursday night. His 36 points on 8-of-13 three-point shooting was a career best and improved his scoring average to 20.8.

But it could have been sophomore Ryan Hawkins (16.1), Welty (8.9), a junior, or any other starter who led the way.

“You’ve got five guys on the floor who all can shoot,” McCollum said. “That makes it difficult for a defense.”

This from a team that McCollum said doesn’t spend much practice time shooting.

“Seventy-five percent of our practice is defense,” McCollum said. “I never felt like guys get a lot out of shooting in practice and it slows things down.”

Nothing has slowed the Bearcats this season. After bidding farewell to four seniors from last year, the Bearcats figured to need some get-acquainted time. But after beating the teams that played for national title last season in its first two games, Northwest was off and running.

And shooting lights out.

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