It’s Just Not That Easy

Northwest Missouri State University won a national championship. No, not that championship they crowned in November. This was the one finalized in March at the height of March Madness. It was a basketball national championship.
If you thought this championship was easy think again. Everything had to fall in place. Everything had to work perfectly. The stars had to align and everyone that even touched men’s basketball had to play their part.
Northwest has been blessed with great coaches over the years. This is the institution that gave legendary coach, Henry Iba, his start in college coaching. This is where Steve Tappmeyer got his team to the edges of a national championship several times. His teams just couldn’t get past the Elite Eight. Still, that was a great accomplishment.
Tappmeyer left Northwest after the 2008-2009 season. Bob Boerigter was the athletic director in charge of finding the next men’s basketball coach. The youngest coach interviewed was Ben McCollum. He was the only candidate with no head coaching experience. However, Ben had been player for Tappmeyer and served as his graduate assistant.
Ben started as the underdog, but quickly became the man for the job in Boerigter’s eyes. He won a lot more people over, too. Things did not go well the first two seasons as the Bearcats lost more games than they won. No one knew it then but the march to 2017 had begun.
It took an athletic director to recognize the talent in McCollum that would go far into the future. One key in the football team remaining stable through two coaching changes is the support staff remained the same men who were in the trenches through all the successes. McCollum hit the jackpot when both Austin Meyer and Andy Peterson remained from Tappmeyer’s staff.
Austin and Andy have been constants for Ben. One great basketball mind like Ben’s is usually good enough for a team, but at Northwest you can multiply it by three. Don’t be fooled, Ben is the man in charge, but Austin and Andy have found a real comfort level and their contribution is priceless.
Of course, the key to any great team is recruiting. I really thought I had seen the best point guard ever at Northwest after Deshaun Cooper graduated. The next year, this frail looking point guard played his first game for the Bearcats. I swear I told whoever would listen that night that Justin Pitts would be a better player than Cooper.
I hope everyone realizes Justin came to Northwest on a partial scholarship, knowing he would re-shirt his first year. Finding great players as well as players willing to play their roles is not an easy task. Take Zach Schneider for instance. Zach set all school and conference records for 3-point shooting. How about a 6-7 post player, very small in NCAA II, like Brett Dougherty? He must have driven much bigger post players crazy the way he got to the basket. Even better was his post defense.
The coaching staff found Chris-Ebou Ndow in Norway. He had 18 rebounds in the championship game. D’Vante Mosby decided to transfer, even after being named freshmen of the year at William Jewell. D’Vante played like a team MVP as the sixth man. Xavier Kurth came on strong at the end of the year and could defend anyone.
With Justin Pitts as a super point guard, hardly anyone knew the Bearcats were starting two point guards. Anthony Woods ball handling skills and decision making took Fairmont State, a pressing team, by surprise. Anthony really can defend anyone.
With true freshman Ryan Welty setting records for consecutive 3-pointers made, opposition couldn’t ignore him. That led to open driving lanes.
Still, with all due respect to these players, probably all three teams the Bearcats faced in the Elite 8 had more athletic ability. What they didn’t have is Northwest’s discipline. I’ll bet 60% to 70% of the time, the Bearcats didn’t even start their offense until there was 10 seconds on the shot clock. It’s really hard to guard a team for the full 30 seconds on the shot clock, but to do it the entire game is really tough for a talented, impatient team. How many times did an offensive rebound lead to another 30 second possession?
There had to be strokes of luck along the way. The very first game of post season, Northwest trailed eighth seed Upper Iowa late in the game. It went into overtime before the Bearcat fans finally could take a deep breath of relief.
What really makes it tough to win a national championship for a school like Northwest is many more schools play basketball than football. Football has 28 teams that go into the playoffs. Basketball has 64 competing for that final trophy. It’s a lot easier for private schools to dump a lot of funds into basketball. Many of those private schools don’t even have football.
I watched those final two games in awe. How could a team without as much athletic ability completely bully their way into making them play the Bearcats half-court style of basketball? It was as great a team defense that I have ever witnessed and a discipline on offense that no other team can claim.
I envy at all those factors being an old, retired basketball coach. Sure Justin Pitts was fantastic, the coaching staff’s preparation flawless, and Ben’s in-game decision-making was without error. Just remember, it’s just not that easy.

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