Is it time to call Northwest Missouri State a DII men's basketball dynasty? Possibly. As the Bearcats inch towards that title, their case in the MIAA is a whole lot stronger.
NWMSU has won seven consecutive regular season conference titles, five conference tournaments in a row and lost just once in the past two years. On Wednesday, Oct. 10, it was pegged as the league-wide favorite to finish first again by the MIAA coaches preseason poll. The team is also likely to receive a top-5 ranking when the NABC preseason poll is released.
But this is 2020, a year unlike any other. The unpredictability ahead could open the door to new challengers or even a new MIAA champion. We came up with five teams who might have a chance at knocking off NWMSU.
First, let's take a look at the Bearcats and why they're still the team to beat in the MIAA.
Northwest Missouri State
The Bearcats were 38-1 a year ago and in the midst of a 23-game winning streak when the 2019-20 season was cut short. Don't expect those winning ways to come to an end this season. NWMSU returns its top three scorers in Ryan Hawkins, Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard — a trio that averaged more than 56 points per game.
Hawkins led the bunch in scoring in addition to winning MIAA Defensive Player of the Year. Bernard joined Hawkins on the All-Defensive team while Hudgins is the reigning MIAA Player of the Year. How's that for a résumé?
This veteran core has already won one championship together. With three-time NABC DII Coach of the Year Ben McCollum running the show and an extra year of experience under their belts, NWMSU could be gearing up for another deep run.
Now for the five teams who could challenge NWMSU:
The Bearcats only lost once in 2019-20, but Missouri Southern challenged NWMSU twice last season. Replacing four seniors, three of which were all-league players, won't be easy. But the Lions do have NABC All-American forward Cam Martin back. The senior will likely be asked to continue carrying the scoring load after averaging 24.1 points per game as a junior. Head coach Jeff Boschee cited Martin's defense as an area of improvement for the new year, though he should benefit from the addition of transfer forwards Yagizhan Selcuk and R.J. Smith.
Guards Winston Dessesow and Stan Scott are the two most experienced returners in the backcourt, though neither recorded a start last year. The Lions took the Bearcats to the wire in the 2020 MIAA tournament final. If Boschee's team can get into a rhythm at the right time, there could be a different outcome in Kansas City this time around.
Momentum could be a factor for the Griffons in 2020 after closing last season with wins in 10 of their final 12 regular season games. First-year head coach Will Martin will look to keep things rolling in St. Joseph with one of the league's deeper teams.
MWSU returns six of its top eight scorers, including first-team All-MIAA guard Tyrell Carroll and MIAA Freshman of the Year Will Eames. The high-low combination of Carroll and Eames proved tough to slow down in their first year playing together. That additional year of development for both players is definitely worth keeping an eye on this season. The biggest question mark for this offense is replacing the perimeter shooting of guard Tyus Millhollin, but look for guard Reese Glover to get even more looks behind the 3-point line.
Missouri Western finished 13-6 in the MIAA last year, good for fourth place. Could this be the year they close the gap on the top 3?
Washburn finished sixth in the MIAA last year with a 11-8 record in league play. With nearly everyone back for 2020, the Ichabods could be a contender in the conference.
First team All-MIAA selection Tyler Geiman will star in one of the deeper guard rotations in the division after averaging 15.2 points and 5.5 assists per game as a junior. He'll likely start alongside upperclassmen guards Jalen Lewis and Drew Maschoff with Connor Deffebaugh and Tyler Nelson available to provide a spark off the bench. Junior forward Johnny Clausing was an All-MIAA Honorable Mention last year and will have Rathen Carter and Jace Williams back to help him anchor the post.
Washburn showed last year it could compete with the top teams in the conference. The Ichabods' biggest question mark this season is whether they can improve on the road. Washburn went 4-7 in true road games. If that number improves, they could be in the thick of things come the beginning of March.
Rogers State played its first season of MIAA basketball in 2019-20, finishing second in the regular season standings while earning the program's first-ever NCAA tournament bid. The Hillcats lost four seniors, but should be competitive towards the top of the league once again. The only difference this year is that head coach Justin Barkley's team won't be able to take teams by surprise.
RSU used a lot of four-guard sets a year ago, though it was one of the more physical teams in the MIAA. If Barkley plans to deploy a similar look this year, he'll have guards Brewster Peacock and Jett Sternberger back in the starting lineup with Darraja Parnell and Cole Kinnamon as candidates to fill the remaining backcourt spots. The Hillcats will look considerably different upfront as Ricardo Lynch is the team's most experienced big after making five appearances a year ago. Destiny Eke — who redshirted last season — returns while RSU added center Joey Saracco to solidify its depth in the post.
Rogers State won 14 of 16 games to close last season. If they can start strong, the Hillcats could not only hear their name called for a postseason bid in 2021, but also potentially challenge NWMSU for the league title.
The Hornets were picked to finish 12th in the MIAA this season. Don't let that preseason prediction fool you, Emporia State could be a tough out if it can avoid injuries in 2020. Head coach Craig Doty's team was 9-5 at one point last year, but four of five starters missed significant time as the Hornets lost 13 of 14 to close the season.
ESU will be one of the more experienced teams in the MIAA with five seniors back, four of which averaged over 20 minutes per game last year. All-MIAA Honorable Mention Brendan Van Dyke returns after making 14 appearances in 2019-20. He'll be complemented in the frontcourt by Dallas Bailey, Duncan Fort and 6-foot-10 center Mason Thiessen. Leading scorer Jumah'Ri Turner will be paired with graduate transfer Austin Downing in the backcourt. Colorado State transfer Anthony Masinton-Bonner could also be an offensive spark on the perimeter.
Emporia State kept pace with NWMSU for a half last year. A more experienced group could be the difference in 2021. We'll find out for sure on Jan. 9 and Feb. 18.