For the last decade-plus, the Division II men’s basketball national champions knew they had earned a special trip: an invitation to play Duke the next year at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Northwest Missouri State coach Ben McCollum and his teams benefited from this — twice. His Bearcats, after winning national titles in 2017 and 2019, flew to Durham, North Carolina for exhibition games against coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils.
“It was awesome. Cameron Indoor, it rivals Allen Fieldhouse, just so much history,” McCollum said. “And then the way they treat you — particularly, Coach K — just treated us fantastic.”
It’s why McCollum and his players couldn’t help but be a bit bummed when Duke changed its plans for this year.
Krzyzewski, in his final season, has opted to not play the Division II national champion, switching that game to a “secret scrimmage” instead. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Duke is expected to play Gonzaga in the Washington, D.C. area for a closed scrimmage.
Duke previously had played the Division II national champ in the exhibition season each year since 2009, with the only exception coming during last season’s COVID-shortened campaign (though there also was no Division II national champion the previous year after the NCAA Tournament was canceled). Krzyzewski said in an August press conference that having an inexperienced roster — the Blue Devils return just four players from last season — was the biggest reason for this year’s change.
“We felt like a scrimmage because we really needed to move along,” Krzyzewski said, according to the News & Observer. “This team hasn’t played. So we are going to have a scrimmage the third weekend of October, a closed scrimmage. And that will help us.”
Northwest Missouri State, in essence, became the program hurt most by the switch. The Bearcats won last year’s D-II title by defeating West Texas A&M, 80-54, in the championship game.
McCollum said Duke contacted Northwest Missouri State about its change in plans about a month after that victory. Rather than focus on any lost opportunity, though, McCollum said he’s grateful for what the Blue Devils provided in the past.
“For anybody to play the defending national champions or any high-quality Division II says a lot about the program itself — meaning Duke — to do that,” McCollum said. “Because regardless of if Duke would beat us however many times out of 10, the better team that you play at the lower level, the better chance they have of pulling off some type of random upset.”
Northwest Missouri State came close a few years ago. After losing 93-60 to Duke in 2017, the Bearcats fell 69-63 in 2019 against the preseason fourth-ranked Blue Devils.
McCollum says one of his most memorable moments in coaching came in that final minute after his point guard Trevor Hudgins made a shot.
“We cut it close, and I remember because their crowd is so loud. You know like how Allen Fieldhouse is? You just can’t talk to the guy next to you,” McCollum said. “It’s so loud, and I think Trevor might have hit a three. It kind of got silent.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God. These guys might actually have a chance. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.’”
McCollum said before the first meeting in 2017, he was able to have an extended chat with Krzyzewski while asking him some questions about coaching. He also left both meetings impressed by Duke’s hospitality.
“They show you respect. They look you in the eyes when they shake hands. They just don’t disrespect this level. They don’t disrespect the play,” McCollum said. “So it was an awesome experience, and that is because of the way we were treated when we went there.”
McCollum’s said his players were initially disappointed when he told them the news, but he said it shouldn’t impact the team too much when it comes to preparing for the season. Northwest Missouri will go without an exhibition game, however, as McCollum said his staff reached out to many Division I teams in the area about a preseason contest without any takers.
“Once you start to win, you just don’t get those opportunities. And I don’t blame anybody for not playing us, not necessarily because they’re scared of us, but because there is a greater chance that you might have one of those off nights and we might be able to win,” McCollum said. “And so it doesn’t really help you a ton to play us necessarily if you’re kind of a random Division I (team).”
KU coach Bill Self — like Krzyzewski — also is changing one of his preseason games against a Division II team this year to a “secret scrimmage.” Self told The Star earlier this week that the Jayhawks would play at Tulsa for that non-public exhibition.
Northwest Missouri will open its title defense Nov. 6 against Northern State in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in St. Joseph, Missouri.
And while it won’t be the same opening game as McCollum envisioned a few months ago, he remains thankful for the matchups that did happen.
“It’s a great experience, and it’s Duke. It’s like KU. It’s the blue bloods,” McCollum said. “To be able to go and play at their place is a very neat experience for our kids.”