Trevor Hudgins drives to the basket during a Northwest Missouri State practice on Tuesday.

MARYVILLE, Mo. — With a conference-only schedule, the MIAA wasted little time in putting a test in front of the defending national champion Northwest Missouri State Bearcats.

On Saturday, Northwest opens the season on the road with last year’s MIAA runner-up Rogers State. The Hillcats were new to the MIAA last year, but made an immediate impact by finishing second in the league — a game in front of Missouri Southern.

“It is starting off tough — no easy games,” Northwest junior guard Diego Bernard said. “We know Rogers State is going to be tough. We are just trying to prepare and be ready for them.”

Rogers State also brings a physical style of game and will already have a game under their belts on Thursday against Missouri Western before the Northwest game. Northwest was supposed to play on Thursday as well, but its game with Northeastern State was postponed.

“Rogers is a really good team, probably one of the most physical teams in our conference,” Northwest junior guard Trevor Hudgins said. “It is going to be fun.”

While the Bearcats won’t have any tune-up games before tipping off with the Hillcats, they will have an incredibly experienced starting lineup with Hudgins, Bernard, Ryan Hawkins, Wes Dreamer and Luke Waters. The five players have combined for 217 starts over the last two seasons.

Hudgins leads the Bearcats from the point guard spot and is a two-time All-MIAA First Team selection and the 2020 MIAA Player of the Year as a sophomore. The Manhattan, Kan., product averaged 19.6 points per game on 53 percent shooting from 3-point range and had a stellar 191-to-53 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Now an upperclassman, Hudgins says its his leadership that has improved the most in the offseason.

“I’ve been here for about three or four years now, so I just feel like one of the old guys giving some wisdom and some knowledge to the younger guys,” Hudgins said.

Two seasons ago, it was thought that Bernard and Hudgins would be two freshmen competing to fill the shoes of National Player of the Year Justin Pitts, but instead the duo started together in the backcourt and led the Bearcats to a perfect season and national title.

The Bernard-Hudgins pairing now goes into its third season together with both being juniors.

Bernard saw all of his statistics take an uptick last season as he averaged 13.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and made the MIAA All-Defense Team. His 3-point percentage also climbed to 36 percent and his free-throw shooting improved to 78 percent.

The only senior in the starting lineup is another 3-year starter with Hawkins. The 2-time MIAA Defensive Player of the Year saw his offensive numbers soar last season jumping from 13.9 points per game as a sophomore to 22.7 as a junior. His 3-point shooting jumped nine points to a 45 percent clip.

Sophomores Waters and Dreamer split time last year as the team’s fifth starter, but both slot into the projected opening day lineup this year.

Waters, who came to Northwest in the same recruiting class as Bernard, proved himself to be a more than capable shooter last season as a 46 percent 3-point marksman. Waters started 15 games and averaged 7.2 points per contest.

Dreamer, a true freshman last season, came on at the end of the year including 18 points in the MIAA Championship win over Missouri Southern. For the year, he averaged 6.5 points per game and was a 38 percent 3-point shooter.

While the starting lineup is very experienced, the Bearcat bench will be largely unproven this season with Daric Laing and Jaran Richman as the only returners. Laing, a fifth-year senior, has seen his role increase each year and scored 3.4 points per game in 10.4 minutes per game last season. Of his 51 shot attempts, 43 came from beyond the arc.

With Tyler Dougherty and Ryan Welty graduating, the Bearcats will turn to some newcomers to fill important minutes. Mitch Mascari and Christian Slanislav will get their first action after redshirting last year, and the Bearcats welcome four freshmen with Spencer Schomers, Isaiah Jackson, Byron Alexander and Daniel Abreu.

“They are an athletic bunch — holy cow,” Hawkins said of the newcomers. “Just overall, I feel like we are very skilled and we have a lot of competitors on this team.”

With this year counting against anyone’s eligibility, it allows the true freshmen a better chance at seeing the court without the option of a redshirt year.

“You know they can score, but if you can play defense then you can get into the game,” Bernard said. “They are looking good.”

Regardless of how the lineup shakes out, the Bearcats are simply excited to get back on the court and begin another title defense of the 2019 national championship.

“We are just excited to get back onto the court, ready to compete, get back with the guys and show them what we can do,” Bernard said.

That defense starts Saturday with Rogers State.

“They are a big team, they have always been,” Hawkins said. “Last year, we played them pretty tough at home. Welty got a nice little elbow to the face on a rebound that cut him open pretty good. But every team in the MIAA is big, strong and competitive, so it is going to be just another day in the best conference in America.”