Northwest Missouri State just completed a tough three-game road stretch with a 71-58 loss at Missouri Western and arguably an even more difficult one begins Saturday at Central Oklahoma.
In between, the Bearcats (11-3, 4-1) should be able to restore some of their lost mojo when they host Lincoln (2-14, 1-5) tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Bearcat Arena.
Northwest is tied atop the MIAA standings with Central Missouri, while the Blue Tigers are tied for last place with Nebraska-Kearney.
Lincoln has lost seven straight since its lone league win over UNK back on Dec. 5.
Five of those, including the last two to Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern at home, were by double-figures.
"They're a lot better than their record indicates," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "At Southern, they were up five or six late. They played Pitt on a neutral site and probably should've beat them. They're going to be really athletic. They're going to really crash the offensive glass. They're going to drive us. We're going to have to focus on what we do and that's go inside and pound people on the boards."
Lincoln ranks at or near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, but its starting lineup contains one of the MIAA's most dynamic scorers, senior guard Cedric Ridle.
He ranks second in the MIAA in scoring behind Washburn's Will McNeill with 18.8 points per game. Ridle is also Lincoln's second leading rebounder with 6.6 boards per game.
"He's a driver first, but he can shoot," said McCollum. "He's really good, really talented, real powerful at 6-2, 6-3. He's going to be tough to stop."
Lincoln's other main scoring threat is 6-7 junior forward Charles Cole. He averages 14.3 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds.
Cole is one of seven JC transfers on Lincoln's roster and one of four that starts.
The others are 6-4 guard Shakir Preston, 5-9 guard Mario Bass and 6-7 forward Brandon Stanciel.
Northwest has beaten Lincoln 12 straight times and McCollum is 4-0 against them over the last two years.
The Bearcats won last year's matchup at Bearcat Arena 80-60 behind 21 points from DeAngelo Hailey and 16 from injured point guard DeShaun Cooper.
Northwest has lost only once at home in the last two seasons.
The Bearcats only remaining January home game is the 31st against Northeastern State.
More inside touches
From McCollum's perspective, one of the more disappointing aspects of Saturday's loss at Missouri Western was Northwest's inability to get the ball down low to junior center Dillon Starzl in the second half.
Starzl was 5-8 from the field in the first half with 13 points but attempted just two more shots and made both to finish with a game-high 17.
Page 2 of 2 - Meanwhile, the Bearcats hoisted up 20 three-pointers in the second half and made only four to finish 7-29.
"We just didn't go inside," said McCollum. "On film, I was shocked at how poor we were executing at going inside. We just passed a couple times and shot a three. That's just not our game. They switched it up on us, so we resorted back to pick-up basketball and didn't focus on what we are. Hopefully, we'll learn from it and not let it happen again."
Starzl averaged 18.3 points and was 22-30 (.733) from the field in the team's last three road games at Southern, Pitt State and Western.
Given that kind of production, McCollum obviously wants to see his touches increase going forward.
And as long as the Bearcats are willing to go inside, McCollum expects their three-point percentage to improve.
"What happens is inside-out shots are probably 15-20 percent higher than just pass around the perimeter three's," said McCollum. "Against Western, they were just passing around the perimeter and shooting a three. Well, that doesn't come from inside-out. When you're a kid and you're shooting by yourself on the gun, it comes from inside-out, so you're used to that."