Undefeated heading into conference play for the second straight year, No. 12 Northwest Missouri State faces a stern test in its MIAA opener tonight against Lindenwood at 7:30 p.m. at Bearcat Arena.
So far the best of the four new entrants into the MIAA, Lindenwood is off to a 4-1 start with an average margin of victory of 19 points against a mix of Division II, NAIA and Division III opponents.
The Lions, who went 27-3 during last year's transition season into Division II, are coming off their only loss to Quincy 81-74. Lindenwood leads the MIAA in scoring (85.8 ppg) and rebounding margin (14.2).
It's starting lineup contains five upperclassmen, four of which are averaging in double-figures.
Alex Bazzell, a 6-2 senior who began his career at UMKC, is tied for fourth in the MIAA in scoring with 18.4 points per game and is fourth in assists with 4.8 per game. Senior Brett Thompson, a 6-11, 270-pound center who transferred from St. Louis, is averaging 11.2 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Forward Richie Thompson is the MIAA's leading rebounder with 9.2 per game.
The Lions are coached by Brad Soderberg who previously served one season as an interim head coach at Wisconsin and five at the helm of St. Louis.
"On paper, everything looks great," said Northwest Missouri State head men's basketball coach Ben McCollum. "I think they'll be pretty good. They got a really good point guard. They got a good shooting guard. Defensively, they really get after you. They look like a top four team in our league in my opinion."
Northwest is 3-0 against Lindenwood all-time, but this is the first meeting between the programs since 1996.
The Bearcats bring a 6-0 record into play, making them one of two unbeatens left in the MIAA along with No. 2 Washburn. Northwest has won five of its first six games by double-figures, although its latest one against York College was much closer than the 80-69 final indicates.
Northwest ranks fourth in the MIAA in scoring defense (57.0 ppg), while averaging 71.5 points per game.
No team has cracked 70 points against the Bearcats all season.
The Bearcats have three players—junior center Dillon Starzl, senior guard DeAngelo Hailey and senior guard Alex Sullivan—that are among the league's top 15 scorers.
Starzl leads Northwest in scoring and rebounding with 15.3 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game.
He is coming off a career-high 24-point outing against York College, but won't have nearly the size advantage against Lindenwood's front line.
Hailey is second on the team with 14.8 points per game followed closely by Sullivan at 14.7 points per game on 51 percent shooting from three.
Four other Bearcats are scoring between five and seven points per game.
Page 2 of 2 - Cooper out for tonight
At the outset of conference play, Northwest Missouri State All-MIAA senior point guard DeShaun Cooper still isn't ready to make his regular season debut.
Cooper continues to be hampered by knee tendinitis issues and will sit out tonight's game against Lindenwood.
His status for Saturday's home game against Nebraska-Kearney will be determined later in the week.
Cooper went through on-court shooting drills after Saturday's win over York College and has been practicing, but remains limited when it comes to attacking off the dribble.
"He can't explode and at 5-6, 5-7 it's hard," said McCollum. "You got to have full explosion because he's not going to use length, so he's got to use athleticism, and so if you don't have that full explosion, it makes a huge difference in his game. He can explode, but he just can't fully explode."
Cooper's injury has lingered to the point where McCollum is considering shutting him down for the season with a medical redshirt. He gave no timetable on when he'd make that decision.
"He's going to have to make some improvement," said McCollum. "If I said something, I might go back on it, so I'm not positive."
Pass-first point guard Matt Wallace will make his seventh straight start in Cooper's place tonight.
He ranks fifth in the MIAA in assists with 4.8 per game.