Justin Pitts is the reigning DII basketball player of the year. His Bearcats have two losses over the past two seasons and are coming off a 23-game winning streak. He scored 23 points in capturing the program's first national championship on the hardwood. He’s also the active leading point scorer in any division in all of college basketball with 2,193 point besting names of DI bombers like Jordan Howard and Trevon Bluiett.
Life’s been good for Pitts in Maryville, Missouri. And it’s seemingly only getting better.
“We had a lot of new guys that didn’t get to play very much last year so it’s exciting to see what they bring to help us now that they are getting minutes,” Pitts told NCAA.com. “We are just focused every day to try and get better.”
Pitts is doing his thing once again with Northwest Missouri State. He's the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association leading scorer at 22.7 points per game, while dishing out 5.2 assists per night. One would think that with everything he accomplished -- you can add being Northwest Missouri State's all-time leader in points and assists to his seemingly endless list of accolades -- his final hurrah would be a pressure-filled season.
It’s been quite the opposite.
“Honestly, this might be the least amount of pressure I’ve felt going into a season,” Pitts said. “Individually, I’m just trying to work every day in practice on getting better at my game and being a better teammate. I worked hard this summer and that helped going into the year.”
The Bearcats are now 12-1, No. 1 in DII basketball. Expectations were through the roof entering the new season, as three seniors — Chris-Ebou Ndow, Brett Dougherty, and Xavier Kurth — returned alongside Pitts from the championship run.
Then you throw in Joey Witthus. The Minnesota State transfer has slipped right in to the Bearcats system, making this team arguably better than last year’s, with three players who can score seemingly at will.
“Having Joey makes it a lot easier for everyone out there,” Pitts said. “He came and fit right in. Every day you can see him getting more confident and we are extremely confident in him. Our entire team trusts him to go make plays.”
Head coach Ben McCollum put his team right to the test, not letting them rest on any rewards of a championship season. Northwest Missouri State closed out its pre-holiday slate with a rematch from last year’s semifinals, a showdown with then undefeated and No. 4 Lincoln Memorial. They walked away victorious, and it wasn't even close. The Bearcats won 70-56.
“That was a big win for us,” Pitts said. “It was great experience for the guys on the team who didn’t see a lot of minutes last year in our bigger games at the end. That was a Top 5 team in the country and was a great win for us. It shows what we can do when we all play together and really helped our confidence.”
The end goal for Pitts is clear. One more heroic walk into the sunset from Sioux Falls, S.D. Despite dropping their last game to Missouri Southern -- the only team that has beat them over the past two seasons incidentally -- the Bearcats still sit at 4-1 in the gauntlet that is the MIAA.
Let's step off the hardwood and find out what really makes Justin Pitts one of DII basketball's brightest stars.
Favorite basketball or sports movie: I liked Coach Carter. No real reason, I just thought it was a really good movie
Favorite NBA team: I’m a Steph Curry fan so I have to say the Warriors.
Athlete you model your game after: I don’t really try to be like anyone but I guess doing things like Steph Curry would be the closest. It’s really tough though to do what he does
What songs/artists are in your headphones pre-game? I prefer slower music instead of songs with a rapid beat. Music from Drake or other artists that have a good beat and are just a bit slower. I definitely like to relax.
Any superstitions? So, I listen to the same playlist and same music before each game. I wear the same socks. And when I put on my socks and shoes, I have to start from the right foot to the left foot, in that order.
Pregame meal or snack you must have: I always have some type of candy on me before a game.
Biggest fear: Spiders. Period.
Favorite part about being a Bearcat: It think my favorite thing is the culture. Everyone here is like a family. It makes it a very special place to play.