MARYVILLE, Mo. — Northwest Missouri State coach Ben McCollum isn't one to just give away spots on his roster so he can go into the season with a certain number of players.
Last season, the Bearcats carried fewer players than almost every team they faced, but that didn't stop them from going 38-0 and winning their second national championship in three seasons. Coach Ben McCollum is much more focused on quality than quantity with his Northwest teams and few can argue with the success it has led to.
“I'm a big believer in it is better to not have somebody than to have somebody that you are essentially going to have to kick off at the end of the season or somebody that doesn't fit your program,” McCollum said. “They depreciate your team a lot quicker than just having nobody.”
With Joey Witthus and Dray Starzl graduating and Xavier Rhodes transferring, the Bearcats return four starters from last year's perfect team and senior Kirk Finley who started numerous games last season including the national quarterfinals and semifinals, but only return seven players who suited up for the team last season.
“As long as the depth is quality, it is depth,” McCollum said. “I think too often people think that numbers are depth and they mistake it. Depth is: Can I put that guy in the game and can he keep winning the game for us?”
Needing to add some key depth, but also knowing that other coaches are using their returning talent against them would provide a tough challenge for the Bearcat coaching staff.
“There are two types of kids,” McCollum said. “There are those that embrace and love competition because they know that it is going to make them better, it is going to challenge their comfort zone, challenge them as people and it is going to ultimately set them up for life to be successful, win championships and win games.
“There is the second that wants more of that guarantee that I'm going to play. … There is a little bit of fear of competition and that is what is being used against us on the recruiting trail. 'Look at who they have at this position.' Yeah, yep, we do have good players at those positions — come beat them out, come compete, come and make them better. Come and win championships.”
Length and shooting have long been the staples of McCollum's program in recent seasons, but last season they took that to a new level. With five shooters on the floor at almost all times, the Bearcats were able to give opponents a unique style of play to face.
The three recruits who McCollum has already brought in to join the team this season fit that familiar Bearcat mold. The first commitment that the Bearcats received was from Lincoln East (Neb.) wing Wes Dreamer. Dreamer committed in August of 2018.
The 6-foot-7 player shot 36 percent from three-point range and averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He had a couple inch growth spurt this past year which was an added attraction for the Bearcats.
“He has length, he can shoot, he can post up, he is similar to what we have, he is athletic, he has won his whole life and he fits exactly what we want in a player and person,” McCollum said. “He is exactly what we like.”
Dreamer also underwent some transition this past season in high school. After spending his first three season at Class C-2 Elmwood-Murdock and becoming a two-time All State player including an All-State honorary captain as a junior, Dreamer transferred to Class A Lincoln East for his senior year and continued his success at that level.
“I was glad that he chose to do that, because just coming from the smaller schools, it makes it difficult to transition in your weight program and physicality of the game and the athleticism,” McCollum said. “He has already taken one of those steps by going to Lincoln East and going against better competition.”
The Bearcats' search for high-level high school players who could stroke a jumper continued in Illinois where they found Geneva 6-foot-5 guard Mitch Mascuri. Geneva — a Chicago suburb — went 32-2 this season and advanced to the 4A state quarterfinals.
“That is what we like in our program — winners that can shoot, have a good feel and move the basketball,” McCollum said.
Mascuri averaged 14 points per game and shot 44% from behind the three-point arc.
“He is an elite shooter,” McCollum said. “When I say elite, he has a quick trigger, he can shoot from … it is five feet behind the line and he is almost more productive from there than right on the line. He is an elite, elite shooter.”
The Bearcats stayed relatively local for their other addition to the 2019 recruiting class, plucking Christian Stanislav from Glenwood, Iowa.
The 6-foot-4 guard helped lead the Rams to a state championship as a junior. As a senior he averaged 20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
“I think he has only scratched the surface as far as how good he can be,” McCollum said. He is deceptively athletic and I'm not sure that he has used all his athletic abilities on the basketball floor and put them on there.”
The Bearcats also will be helped by 2018 recruit Luke Waters, who redshirted last season.
“He is obviously long, he is physical, he is tough and he plays hard, but he can shoot,” McCollum said. “It is difficult to defend him on ball-screens because he is difficult to switch because he can also post up.”
McCollum says he isn't finished on the 2019 recruiting trail yet and is hoping to possibly add two more players to the team for this coming season.
Regardless of what the final quantity of players is, McCollum likes the quality of this Bearcat roster and thinks they are ready for the pressure that comes with defending a perfect season.
“I think biggest thing that is difficult is the ability to handle success,” McCollum said. “Just anywhere that you see, in any walk of life, that is by far and away more difficult than handling adversity or being hungry to get a national championship. They have one, so how do you then motivate yourself to get another one and continue with that process? It'll be a challenge this season and we are excited about that. Hopefully our guys are working hard and understand that. … The big thing with them is are they self-motivated? Do they want for more?”