MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Ben McCollum was not a popular pick when Northwestern Missouri State hired him to lead its men’s basketball team 14 years ago. He was 27 and had never been a head coach, and was being asked to take charge of a Division II program that had a proud and winning reputation.
The pride is still there. The winner ? Well, these days the Bearcats hardly ever lose.
They’re coming off a record-breaking third straight national title and their fourth in the last five NCAA tournaments, and they’ve only lost one player from the team that cut the nets again in March. That one was Trevor Hudgins, who became Northwest State Missouri’s first NBA player when he signed with the Houston Rockets over the summer.
Unsurprisingly, McCollum’s phone has remained active in recent years as Division I administrators weigh his interest in advancing to the top level of college basketball. And while that time may come, McCollum is clear that this would be the perfect opportunity to steer him away from the dynasty he built in the small town of Maryville, in northwest Missouri.
“I’m not the type to do self-promotion. That’s just not what I do,” McCollum explained. “I’m not constantly looking for the next place to go. If this place comes to find me and it’s a match, that’s probably how it’s going to end up going. If I leave at some point. But the right fit is probably a larger version of what we have here.
Good luck finding a bigger program that earns as much as the Bearcats.
They rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s under Steve Tappmeyer, winning seven conference championships with 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament. But even Tappmeyer couldn’t get the Bearcats to the Elite Eight until a gritty overachievers from Iowa transferred from a junior college to lead the way.
It was the first time McCollum had taken them to new heights.
The second came after a few years as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, then five years as an assistant at conference rival Emporia State. Tappmeyer retired in 2009 and Northwest Missouri State turned to the energetic former player to take over, a questionable move made even more unpopular by two consecutive losing seasons.
The turnaround came in 2012, when McCollum led the Bearcats to a 22-7 record, won the conference title and reached the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They reached the Sweet 16 two years later, went 35-1 and won their first national title in 2017, then went 38-0 and won their second championship two years later. And after COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament — the Bearcats were 31-1 at the time — they won two more titles.
In total, they have won 17 straight NCAA Tournament games and 24 of their last 25, and the only schools to win more Division II national championships are Kentucky Wesleyan with eight and Evansville, now in Division I, with five.
“I don’t think people understand the difficulty of dealing with success versus dealing with adversity,” said McCollum, who won a record five NABC Coach of the Year awards at his level. “It’s extremely difficult to accept all the love these guys are getting for winning a title and to come back with humility and do it again.”
It is useful that there is continuity within the program. Xavier Kurth was one of the stars of McCollum’s first title team and became an assistant coach. Hudgins wore a red shirt as a freshman and played four seasons at Northwest Missouri State. Others were lucky enough to transfer to Division I schools but remained loyal to the Bearcats.
“They made me the player I am today,” Hudgins said. “All the records I’ve broken and everything else is the coach and the players I’ve played with – how well we’ve played, how well we’ve been coached. It had a huge impact on me. »
The Bearcats are winning despite being in a talent-poor region of the country, although most of their players still come from a relatively small geographic area. And that says a lot about McCollum and his team’s ability to identify underrated talent like Hudgins, who received no Division I offers despite growing up in the same town as Kansas State.
On the court, the Bearcats execute perhaps the most effective offense in college basketball. It’s all about angles, screens, and spacing to get open looks, but there are no discernable patterns. It’s a nightmare to defend.
“We just get the right players, and I mean, the coaching staff is a big part of that,” said forward Wes Dreamer, who grew up not far from the University of Nebraska. “Then it comes down to the effort at the end and what Coach Mac tells us to do.”
There are many examples of Division I schools selecting head coaches from the lower echelons of the sport.
Missouri hired Kim Anderson, fresh off a national title at Central Missouri, to lead its program, though he was fired after just three years. Indiana State recently hired Lincoln coach Josh Shertz, who had taken the Railsplitters to three Final Fours since 2016. And Mount St. Mary’s hired Dan Engelstead in 2018 from southern Vermont, a Division III program, and there At age two, he took the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
These three coaches had been Division I assistants, however. McCollum has never worked at this level. So if he leaves the northwestern state of Missouri, it will likely take an athletic director willing to take a calculated risk and a considerable leap of faith to hire McCollum to lead a program at the highest level of college basketball. .
Just as administrators did in the northwest state of Missouri more than a decade ago.
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