The most exciting college basketball coach in America is staying put for another season.
That is, at least, one way to look at Ben McCollum. As another offseason coaching carousel twirls to a close there was seemingly little interest from Division I schools in McCollum, who has built a Colossus of an NCAA program. The caveat, of course, is that he’s done this at Division II Northwest Missouri State.
But should that really matter?
Maybe not when you consider the sheer magnitude of McCollum’s resume. The 40-year old inherited a competitive Bearcats program in 2009, one which he played for and helped lead to its first Elite Eight in 2002. But since 2013, Northwest has been in another stratosphere in Division II. The Bearcats have won three national championships (including the last two) and have made it at least as far as the Sweet 16 in six out of the last seven NCAA Tournaments.
Surrounding that postseason success have been nine regular season titles and an overall win percentage pushing 80 percent over 12 years (300-78), which is all the more remarkable when you consider McCollum oversaw losing campaigns over his first two seasons. In there have been gaudy single-season win totals, including a perfect, 38-0 season as the Bearcats captured their second national title in 2018-19.
Underpinning it all has been arguably the best offense — anywhere — in college basketball.
“He’s had a top-five offense on Synergy for six straight seasons, which means his teams are this good no matter who’s on the roster, and he’s done this despite being a defense-first coach,” said Will Warren, who runs statsbywill.com. “The first thing McCollum said to me when I asked about his offense was that he cares much more about defense and frets over that side of the ball more often, which is pretty funny for a guy who’s overseeing the best offense at any level of college hoops.”
Despite this glitz, there’s been seemingly little interest in McCollum at the Division I level. Jon Walker, sports editor of the local paper in Maryville, Mo., recently wrote about where he felt the title-winning coaching stood in the Division I coaching carousel.
McCollum undoubtedly deserves a chance at the next level, but it’ll be after the Bearcats win back-to-back-to-back titles.
There was another question this week that was similar to this one, and it asked if there were any rumors about McCollum or any Division I transfers, but I don’t think there are any rumors for McCollum, more so people vying for him to at least get looked at.
Hiring a coach from a lower level isn’t without precedent. Just this offseason, Indiana State hired Josh Schertz from Division II Lincoln Memorial, no doubt sold on Schertz taking the Tennessee-based Railsplitters to three Final Fours since 2015-16 (including this year, where they fell to a West Texas A&M team that Northwest beat by 26 points in the title game).
Mount St. Mary’s dipped even further down the NCAA hierarchy in 2018, plucking Dan Engelstead from Division III Southern Vermont after a successful five-year run in charge of that program. Engelstead captured March magic this past year, leading the Mount to the NEC Tournament championship and the First Four.
One potentially critical difference between those two hires and McCollum, in the eyes of Division I athletic directors, may well be that Schertz and Engelstead both spent time as assistants at the Division I level. McCollum, on the other hand, has been a Division II coaching lifer, spending his entire coaching career within the MIAA at Northwest and Emporia State.
Still, the massive success in the upper left corner of Missouri should warrant more buzz.
Warren, who wrote an excellent piece breaking down Northwest’s brutally-effective offense in 2019, compares McCollum’s unpredictable ball screen system to abstract art or free jazz. And he thinks a form of that could translate to Division I.
“The key would be attempting to find both a fabulous ball-handling guard and an excellent three-level shooting small-ish center,” Warren said. “He’s clearly got a type he likes to mine, and I’d be fascinated to see if he could find the right balance of shooting and athleticism at a higher level. I don’t see why he couldn’t do what Bellarmine did this year, for example; that’s a team largely stuffed with their 2019-20 D-II athletes that nearly won the A-Sun in year one behind a very unique cut-heavy offensive system.”
To that end, Warren said McCollum has also shown impressive recruiting chops in building his Division II powerhouse.
“I don’t know if enough can be said about how he’s done this over six years and that he’s done it despite the location of his school,” Warren said. “Northwest Missouri gets some Kansas City and Omaha-area guys that have high school success, but they only have one player on the roster not from Kansas/Nebraska/Missouri. Those states produce some good talent, but it’s not like he’s plucking kids from Texas/California/Georgia. I’m not sure Northwest has ever procured a player that’s gotten serious D-1 attention. For him to find so many diamonds in the rough across the last decade shows that he’s got a remarkably high-end eye for talent and knows exactly what will help his team over the course of four or five years.”
Calling McCollum himself a diamond in the rough in the context of Division I feels wrong with what he’s engineered over a decade-plus at Northwest. But while he would be an outside-the-box hire, it seems he’s more than ready for a shot on the sport’s biggest stage.