Northwest Missouri State was supposed to use Wednesday night's home game with last-place Lincoln to rebound from a disappointing road loss to Missouri Western.
Instead, an inexplicable 70-65 loss to the Blue Tigers sends the Bearcats back on the road for three straight games with their season suddenly on very shaky ground.
After a 4-0 league start, the Bearcats (11-4, 4-2) are no longer in first place and face the prospect of dropping further in the standings unless they get it turned around right away.
Minus starting point guard DeShaun Cooper for the rest of the year, Northwest begins an imposing trio of road games with Central Oklahoma (6-9, 4-3) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Edmond. It's next two road opponents are Southwest Baptist (5-10, 3-4) and conference leader Central Missouri (11-3, 5-1).
"It's not as critical to win as it is to play well," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "We got to get back to doing what we do. Offensively, we have to kind of figure out how to attack a zone. We're starting to get there. We're working on it quite a bit. We do well in practice and get to the game and do something totally different. We just have to execute and play hard down there."
Northwest has never won at any of the three venues its about to visit in McCollum's four-year tenure. This will be the Bearcats' first time playing at Central Oklahoma's Hamilton Fieldhouse.
UCO is one of four new league members this year and has been the epitome of an up-and-down team.
The Bronchos lost two of their first thee league games, won their next three over the likes of No. 13 Washburn and Lindenwood before losing at home to Northeastern State 80-71 Wednesday night.
They are currently tied with NSU and Pittsburg State for sixth place.
"It's our conference," said McCollum. "The conference is up and down. It's pretty random. They're extremely talented. If they make three's, then they're pretty good. If they don't make shots, then they'll have a tough time."
UCO is the MIAA's fourth-highest scoring team with 76.7 points per game but is last in scoring defense, giving up 80.8 points per game. The Bronchos are not a particularly good shooting team either, ranking ninth or below in the MIAA in free throw, field goal and three-point percentage.
Central Oklahoma has a pair of double-figure scorers and two others that are close to that mark. Junior guard Josh Gibbs, a Kansas City native, leads the Bronchos in scoring and rebounding with 15.1 ppg and 6.1 rpg.
He's been the team's leading scorer in each of the last six games, scoring at least 16 points in all of them.
Page 2 of 2 - Spencer Smith, a 6-6 senior forward, averages 12.8 points per game. Senior guard Jamell Cormier and redshirt freshman guard Seth Heckart average 9.7 points per game.
Heckart is the team leader in three's made with 26 followed by Gibbs with 25.
Northwest is still No. 1 in the MIAA in scoring defense (60.9 ppg), but has allowed consecutive opponents to reach 70 points against them. That never happened in any of Northwest's first 13 games.
The Bearcats have also gone cold from three, making just 13-52 (.250) over their last two games against teams that have played zone and dared them to shoot.
McCollum expects Central Oklahoma to employ the same strategy.
"They would be dumb if they didn't," said McCollum. "We got to hit open shots, play with some confidence and kind of get our swagger back."
Primary three-point strikers DeAngelo Hailey (14.3 ppg) and Alex Sullivan (12.1 ppg) have bore the brunt of Northwest's shooting woes, going 10-40 (.250) in the last two games.
Junior center Dillon Starzl remains the Bearcats most consistent offensive option, averaging a team-high 14.4 points per game on 62.3 percent shooting. He's scored 17 in back-to-back games and double-figures in each of the last four.
Deep reserve guard Lyle Harris provided a jolt to Northwest's offense Wednesday, scoring 10 points in the final three minutes. McCollum says he could be in line for extended playing time.