Jim Henry: Bearcats juggernaut just keeps on rolling

Jim Henry, The Joplin Globe, Mo.
·3 min read

Apr. 3—The Northwest Missouri men's basketball juggernaut just keeps on rolling.

One week ago the second-seeded Bearcats whipped top-seeded West Texas A&M 80-54 in the championship game in Evansville, Indiana, capping a 28-2 season.

It is the Bearcats' third national title in the last four tournaments — the 2020 tournament was canceled by COVID-19. Their 26-point victory margin is the second largest in championship game history, surpassed only by North Carolina Central's 73-46 victory over Southeast Missouri State in 1989.

Since the first Division II tournament in 1957, no team has been more dominant than the 2021 Bearcats in the Elite Eight. Northwest Missouri whipped West Liberty 98-77 in the quarterfinals and Flagler 77-46 in the semifinals. The combined victory margin of 78 points in the last three games is a record, three more than the former mark.

However, it took a late rally by the Bearcats for them to reach the Elite Eight.

In the Central Region championship game in Aberdeen, South Dakota, host Northern State held an eight-point lead over the Bearcats with two minutes left in the second half. But guard Trevor Hudgins ignited a comeback and capped it with a 3-pointer in the waning seconds to send the game into overtime. The Bearcats went on to win 91-86 in overtime.

Hudgins certainly is no stranger to hitting big shots for the Bearcats. He's been the MIAA Player of the Year the last two seasons and the Division II player of the year this season by two organizations. He and Colbey Ross of Pepperdine are the only two active players in all NCAA divisions who have at least 1,900 points and 500 assists.

Hudgins is second nationally in the NCAA in 3-point shooting (minimum of 40 makes) at 50.9% (90 of 177), trailing Adam Moussa of Black Hills State (45 of 87 for 51.7%). Chris Shelton leads Division I at 48.6%, and he's taken 39 fewer shots than Hudgins.

Forward Ryan Hawkins, the other half of the Bearcats' dynamic duo, had a big championship game with 31 points and 18 rebounds and was named Most Outstanding Player at the Elite Eight. He's one of four active NCAA players with at least 2,000 points and 900 rebounds, joining Luka Garza of Iowa, Terry Taylor of Austin Peay and Andrew Sischo of Daemen.

Coach Ben McCollum reached a milestone as the championship marked his 300th career victory. He's 300-78 in a dozen seasons as the Bearcats' coach. More eye-popping numbers: McCollum is 35-3 during games in March and 23-5 in NCAA Tournament games.

The Bearcats' team numbers are equally impressive:

—97-3 record during the last three seasons and 159-8 over the last five seasons;

—43 consecutive victories on neutral floors;

—21-1 record in conference play to set an MIAA record, breaking the former mark of 19 victories held by Missouri Southern (2010-11) and the Bearcats (2015-16 and 2018-19);

—10 consecutive 20-win seasons;

—45 consecutive weeks ranked in the top-5 in the NABC Division II poll.

The Bearcats also led the nation in offensive efficiency, averaging 1.124 points per possession. By comparison, undefeated Gonzaga leads Division I at 1.091 points.

Hawkins is the only senior in the Bearcats' starting lineup, and he's said he'll return next season and use the extra year of eligibility awarded by the NCAA because of the pandemic.

So looking ahead to the 2021-22 season, the Bearcats are again loaded.

Follow Sports Editor Jim Henry on Twitter at @Jim_Henry53.