Northwest Missouri shows why it's an 'anomaly' in dominant Elite Eight run

Brandon Zenner
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If a section of the Louvre was dedicated to Northwest Missouri State basketball, there are a number of moments in recent history worthy of a spot.

In the 2019 national championship, Joey Witthus beat the shot clock from near half-court. Last year, Trevor Hudgins delivered an MIAA regular season title with a buzzer-beater against Missouri Southern. Any number of big-time moments could describe the careers of Justin Pitts, a Blue Springs South High School graduate, and Deshaun Cooper could garner consideration.

In Thursday's dominant 77-46 win against Flagler College in the NCAA Division II semifinal, it wasn't a buzzer-beater, rim-rattling dunk or even a turning point: It was simple basketball.

"I know where we're at efficiency-wise, but it's more about the process and making sure we're getting the right shots," Northwest coach Ben McCollum said.

With 6:46 remaining in the first half, junior Trevor Hudgins began dribbling the ball up the floor. He made a pass to his left to Wes Dreamer, handed it off to Diego Bernard and reset to Hudgins atop the 3-point arc.

From there instilled a perfect possession of basketball. The Bearcats (27-2) dizzied the Saints, passing the ball 12 times to pass up good look after good look.

With five seconds left on the shot clock, Bernard passed up a 3-point shot for a drive and no-look one-handed pass to Hudgins. One second remained on the shot clock before the 3-pointer hit the bottom of the net.

The play drew a buzz across social media the rest of the night, drawing a point to Northwest's style of basketball.

"We're trying to get great shots," Northwest junior Diego Bernard said. "I felt like we had four or five OK shots, then we just kept getting them in rotation and I found Trevor for the 3. That was a great shot and he knocked it down."

It's the kind of plays that leads Northwest to having the most efficient offense in all of college basketball. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Bearcats average 1.124 points per possession, the most in all levels of NCAA hoops. That includes unbeaten Gonzaga in Division I.

"Not taking OK shots, taking great shots," Bernard said. "When we get them in rotation, layups are there, too."

The Bearcats have averaged 1.44 points per possession in the Elite Eight and can spread it out. Every starter had at least eight points Thursday, led by Ryan Hawkins’ 20 points. True freshman sixth man Isaiah Jackson, a William Chrisman High School graduate, added four points, four rebounds, two steals and an assist.

On the season, Northwest is shooting 53.7% from the field, a stat Flager head coach Chad Warner took note of. Combined, the efficiency has helped Northwest to 42-straight wins on a neutral floor, nearly three times as many as anyone in any level of NCAA.

"I don't think our kids really care if we're efficient or not," McCollum said. "It's more, are they unselfish, do they share the ball, do we get the shots we want? Statistically, we're probably an anomaly. If you have stat guys that say this is the new wave of how you're supposed to run offense, it would be us — I don't focus anything on stats."

The stats show that Northwest has dominated in the postseason, winning its first two games of the MIAA Tournament by a combined 71 points. In the opening round of the region, Northwest defeated Washburn by 41. In the Elite Eight, the Bearcats have won by 21 and 31, fueling a giant back to the national title game.

"A win's a win right now. There's no style points," McCollum said. "I wish we could carry our margin of victory in the championship, but you just can't. We played well and they didn't play very well. There's nothing more to read into it. A win's a win, and you try to win the next game."