By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
KANSAS CITY - Once the confetti from Northwest Missouri State's second consecutive national championship in men's basketball settled last spring, the big question heading into the offseason was, who will stay and who will go?
Senior and first-team all-MIAA power forward Ryan Hawkins, who led the Bearcats last season with 22.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, announced his transfer to Division I Creighton in May.
Everybody else who played significant minutes last year, along with head coach Ben McCollum who's garnering bigger and bigger attention nationally, are back in 2021-22.
Northwest, who received 13 out of 14 first-place votes in the preseason MIAA coaches' poll, and all nine votes in the media poll, look well equipped to make a run at a ninth-straight regular season conference title and a third straight national title as well.
"We'll see how it all shakes out," McCollum said, speaking at MIAA basketball media day at the Sprint Center in Kansas City Tuesday. "I like our team. We have good kids and have had a good preseason up to this point."
Northwest went 28-2 last year, sweeping through the Central Regional in Aberdeen, South Dakota and the Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana this past March, and eventually routing West Texas A&M, 80-54 in the national championship game on March 27.
Among the most important players to come back are MIAA and National Player of the Year Trevor Hudgins, along with MIAA Defensive Player of the Year and Lafayette St. Joseph alum Diego Bernard, who are considered to be the best backcourt in all of DII basketball.
Entering their fourth season playing together, Hudgins is excited to further his already outstanding Bearcat legacy.
"I mean, when we go against each other for four years (in practice), we're going to get better I feel like," Hudgins said. "We have gotten better just over the years. I think we've matured a lot. Our shot has gotten better. Even our defense, too I think."
Hawkins was a key piece for Northwest's defense last year, leading the team with 55 steals. But forwards Wes Dreamer and Luke Waters, who both started all 30 games last year, look to take on bigger roles as they both enter their third seasons.
Dreamer was second on the team last year with 14 blocks, while Waters was fourth in scoring, averaging 9.8 points per contest.
Hudgins, who's been getting Division I looks and has NBA aspirations, told ESPN in April of his intentions to come back and finish his college career in full at Northwest. He says playing for McCollum, who took a chance on him when not many other coaches did, was a key factor in deciding to come back.
"Just knowing that he stuck with me all of these years and that he have me a chance," said Hudgins, who redshirted in his first year in 2017-18. "I'm really excited to play this year, especially without the COVID stuff. I mean, we still wear masks and all that, but just having the crowd there. The crowd is such a difference maker in all of the games we've played.
"I'm just ready to compete, honestly. Just ready to get back after it."
Northwest will open its season with a bang on Nov. 6-7 in the Small College Basketball Classic at Civic Arena in St. Joseph. The Bearcats will start the season on Nov. 6 when they face off against Northern State - a team that went 19-2 last season and took Northwest into overtime in the Central Regional Championship in Aberdeen.
The Bearcats won that game 91-86, but the Wolves were the only team that kept Northwest to within single digits in the postseason last year. The Bearcats won their other four postseason games by an average of 29.8 points.
"That event is awesome," McCollum said. "If anyone saw the Northern State game last season where we were down by 11 or 12, it'll be a rematch of that and we're excited to play in that (tournament) and have been for the last few seasons."
Northwest will then face Seattle Pacific on Nov. 7.
This feels like familiar territory for the Bearcats. Coming off of a deep postseason run. Coming off of another title. A core group of starters back. Sky high expectations. One of the best basketball minds in the country steering the ship.
With a group of six redshirt freshmen who all saw solid minutes last season, including Central Region MVP Byron Alexander coming back, along with two new freshmen joining the fold, McCollum is excited about what he has.
But, he knows that success in 2021-22 will, in large part, be defined by how well Bernard and Hudgins do. If the early days of preseason workouts and practice are any indication, it seems the Bearcats will, once again, be the team to beat in the MIAA, and perhaps the entire nation.
"Once players get to be older and more mature, they start to understand the importance of every day," McCollum said of Hudgins and Bernard. "They've shown that with this preseason. They've been fantastic. They've been ready to go every single day and we need that to continue."
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