Identifying the nation’s best college basketball program is a fool’s errand. Every team and circumstance presents its own challenges.
But there is the matter of record and winning percentage, and as NCAA hoops heads into its tournament phase the program with the best winning percentage in all divisions of the men’s game over the past four years entering this week is housed in Maryville, Mo.
Ben McCollum oversees the force that is Northwest Missouri State men’s basketball. The Bearcats open play in the MIAA Tournament at Municipal Auditorium on Thursday with a 28-1 record and No. 1 ranking in Division II.
Since 2017, Northwest stands 128-6 (95.5 percent). The Bearcats won NCAA championships in 2017 and 2019, last season with a 38-0 record.
These Bearcats are getting it done in the usual way, taking good shots and making the majority of them, playing tight defense and making great decisions.
The backcourt of Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard is the league’s best, and Hudgins, a sophomore who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, watching Jacob Pullen star for Kansas State, was named MIAA player of the year this week.
His buzzer-beating leaner to defeat Missouri Southern by a point on Feb. 20 clinched Northwest’s seventh straight championship. His reaction to the shot typifies the Bearcats’ approach.
“My first game winner at the buzzer, but honestly what I take from that game is we need to get better,” Hudgins said. “It shouldn’t come down to that.”
It rarely does at Northwest, which owns a 21-point average margin of victory this season. This Bearcats team is younger than last year’s, but there’s no drop-off in talent. Besides the backcourt, forward Ryan Hawkins, who joined Hudgins on the All-MIAA first team, averages 22.8 points. Hudgins leads Division II in three-point shooting at 52.7 percent and Ryan Welty would be third at 51.6 percent if he had enough attempts to qualify.
“Kick-out threes or layups,” said Welty, a senior who went to Park Hill South. “That’s how our offense works.”
It’s all worked toward creating another momentous season at Northwest, and those have happened in part because McCollum has a long memory. He doesn’t allow himself to forget about his first two seasons as a head coach, when his Bearcats teams finished the 2010 and 2011 seasons at 12-15 and 10-16.
This after succeeding longtime coach Steve Tappmeyer — McCollum’s coach at Northwest, who had taken the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament in eight of his final nine seasons.
“Oh, I was discouraged,” McCollum said. “There was a point where I was about to quit. I had to figure out why weren’t having success and lot of it was self-inflicted.”
When McCollum couldn’t keep his emotions in check during a game, especially his frustrations, his team absorbed the behavior. When that changed, McCollum’s career turned a corner.
“I remind myself I’m still that coach,” he said. “Too often, when you have success and people tell you how good you are, you start to think you’re better than the reality. ... Once you get over yourself a little bit and understand who you are, that allows you to reflect back on those 10-16 years.
“I’m still that coach about to lose his job. I get back to that to keep things in perspective.”
Hudgins said no moment is wasted in practice. This week, he was having a good workout. Then he threw a bad pass.
“He (McCollum) said, ‘You’ve been excellent all day, but you know what to do, so fix it,’” Hudgins said. “That’s what I like about Coach Mac: He’s honest and he holds us accountable.”
McCollum, 38, takes a 269-76 career record into the postseason, and other programs have expressed interest in his services. He had a conversation with the Division I Kansas City Roos (formerly known as UMKC) after last season.
“I’ve always been an extreme loyalist,” McCollum said. “I’m not a grass is always greener guy. I like the grass I have. When you’re always looking outside, and at the next thing, you forget what you have in front of you.”
McCollum says he tells recruits that if they have a chance to play at a high-major program, take it. Anything less, come to Northwest and play for national championships. He applies that philosophy to his career, too.
“I think our level is better than most low-majors,” he said.
The Bearcats don’t get a chance to prove that often, but an opportunity presented itself in November when Northwest played an exhibition game at Duke. The Blue Devils won by just six points.
Northwest made a statement then. The path to make a bigger one begins this week.