Northwest Missouri State junior Ryan Welty shoots during the Bearcats' practice on Tuesday at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. 

EVANSVILLE, Mo. — The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats are back at the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons, but the undefeated 2019 Bearcats look a lot different from the 2017 national champions. 

The starting lineup for the 2017 Bearcats consisted of junior Justin Pitts, senior Anthony Woods, junior Chris Ebou-Ndow, senior Zach Schneider and junior Brett Dougherty. This year’s team looks a little different and has far less experience as Schneider is the only one back off that squad, but he is now an assistant coach rather than a player. 

“It just shows what our kids that have graduated have left for a culture,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “They have made our program better because they were here and you see the results of that in the wins that we have. Obviously, it is nice to continue that and hopefully we can continue that for years to come.”

One player that does have some vivid memories of that championship run is Bearcat junior Ryan Welty. The Park Hill South graduate averaged 18 minutes a game as a freshman and is the only player among the current Bearcats to play more than five minutes a game that year. 

Welty made waves in helping that 2017 team win the national title, He broke an NCAA record by shooting 67 percent from three that season — making 52-of-78. 

He became the Bearcats’ sixth man last year on a team that was on track to repeat as national champions until a late-season injury to Pitts ended their run. 

“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh Justin Pitts, you don’t have him anymore,’ but Trevor (Hudgins), we played in a summer league game and he had 48 points,” Welty said. “In that moment, I knew we were going to be just fine.”

This season, Welty has moved into the starting lineup along with three other new starters and McCollum says he has seen Welty rise to the occasion with increased opportunities. 

“He has gotten playing time, number one,” McCollum said. “He has a lot of confidence in what he can do offensively and defensively. He is just a tough kid and he is as good as teammate as there is.”

Welty is actually just fifth on the team in scoring, but McCollum stresses that numbers don’t accurately demonstrate Welty’s value. When other team’s prepare for the Bearcats, one of the first names on the scouting report is Welty’s because they know that he is as reliable as it gets with a clean look. 

“He shoots at an almost automatic level from three, so you have to make sure that you stay home on him,” McCollum said. “Defensively, he is 6-8 and he can guard 6-foot guards on the perimeter which helps with his length. … He is fantastic for us.”

After being mainly a spot-up shooter as a freshman, Welty has worked to expand his game and the improvement is evident, especially on the defensive end. 

“Get stops on defense, make open shots and rebound the ball,” Welty said. “I feel like those are my three biggest jobs and I try to do those three things as well as I can every night.”

Now as the Bearcats seek their second title in Welty’s tenure, he is excited to bring his experience to this season’s young Bearcats featuring an all-freshman backcourt. 

“It is just super special,” Welty said. “Going into this year, we didn’t have a lot of expectations. My freshman year, I felt like there were expectations to be great. This year, I felt like we were almost underdogs coming into the season.”

Northwest opens with Mercyhurst in the Elite Eight on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. If they advance, the semifinals will be played on Thursday with the final on Saturday. 

“It is cool to be here, but I am not satisfied yet, we still have three more games that I want to win,” Welty said. “I want to go 38-0. That is the overall goal.”