Going into the 2012-2013 season, Northwest Missouri State's men's basketball team is dealing with a different set of challenges and expectations than normal.
After finishing 22-7 last year, claiming a share of the MIAA title and reaching the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the overachieving Bearcats solidified themselves as one of the conference's premier teams.
Now instead of being the hunter, they are the one's with the target on their backs.
"We're going to have to take everybody's best shot," said Northwest Missouri State men's coach Ben McCollum, the 2011 Division II National Coach of the Year. "We just got to be more consistent. But I think the motivation wears off after five minutes. It's more of just who's mentally tougher and who wants it more."
Along with the increased attention from opponents, Northwest has a much greater standard for success to live up to. Simply making the NCAA Tournament and losing in the first round like last year won't be good enough anymore.
While acknowledging that to be true, McCollum is focused on the more immediate.
"I think that's the next step," said McCollum. "I think the first step is number one, not necessarily to compare it to last year, but make the conference tournament. You got to make that to have a chance to make the national tournament. I don't want to put the cart before the horse and not make that and focus on the national tournament. We haven't won a single game yet, so we got to focus on just making the conference tournament."
Ranked No. 19 in the first Bulletin Poll, Northwest was picked to finish third in the MIAA behind the two teams they shared the title with last year—Washburn and Central Missouri.
The Bearcats bring back two starters, their top scorer and all of their top reserves, but graduated second team All-MIAA center Jake Reinders, top long-range threat Kyle Haake and starting small forward Justin Clark decided not to return.
Reinders was Northwest's second leading scorer (11.9 ppg) and leading rebounder (6.9 rpg) last year.
Haake connected on 39.2 percent of his three-point tries and made a team-high 51.
Beyond their on-court contributions, both were respected leaders.
"Jake's relentless effort in practice did so much for us," said McCollum. "Kyle, just his savvy and intelligence, he's such a quality leader as far as being able to say the right things at the right time and handling all the different players on the team. We're really going to miss them quite a bit."
Senior point guard DeShaun Cooper and junior center Dillon Starzl are the remaining members of last year's starting five.
Cooper, a first team All-MIAA selection who led the Bearcats in scoring and assists last year, will miss the start of the season with knee tendinitis. As long as Cooper is out, 5-11 sophomore guard Matt Wallace will handle the starting point guard duties.
Page 2 of 2 - "Matt is not as much of a scorer as DeShaun is now, so you really got to rely on your wings and your post players to score a little bit more," said McCollum.
Northwest's other backcourt spots will be manned by a combination of senior DeAngelo Hailey, senior Alex Sullivan, junior Bryston Williams, junior Tyler Funk and redshirt freshman Lyle Harris.
Serving as Northwest's sixth-man last year, Hailey averaged 10.2 points per game and was an honorable mention All-MIAA selection.
Sullivan, who transferred from Ohio prior to last year, connected on over 47 percent of his three-point tries and stands to take on a much greater role in the offense. He scored a career-high 19 points in the team's 91-58 exhibition loss to Missouri.
Williams shot close to 85 percent from the foul line last year and is regarded as one of the team's top perimeter defenders.
Funk, who averaged just nine minutes last year, could see an increase in playing time especially early in the year.
Northwest's frontcourt lacks a proven scoring threat, but McCollum is supremely confident in the trio of Starzl, 6-8 sophomore Grant Cozad and 6-10 junior Kyle Schlake.
"They'll be really good," said McCollum. "That will be a strength of ours is the inside presence. We'll have size. We'll have strength. We'll have effort on everyone in the conference."
The big-bodied Starzl averaged 5.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season, his second as a starter.
Cozad and Schlake played sparingly behind Reinders, but gained experience from daily practice battles against him and Starzl.
"They went against better competition in practice last year than they would have in the conference," said McCollum. "Those kids will be able to pick right up."
Freshman Robert Freshman, a 6-6 forward, could also vie for playing time in the frontcourt. Northwest has four other true freshman guards—Conner Crooker, Blake Ruiz, Jordan Ashton and Grant Greenberg—that are redshirt candidates.
Northwest opens its season Sunday against Graceland at 3:30 p.m.
The Bearcats play nine non-conference games, and 18 within the league with home-and-homes against Washburn, UNK, Fort Hays State and Missouri Western.
Northwest plays everyone else in the league just once.