As January games in the MIAA go, the stakes don't get much higher than they are for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. clash between Northwest Missouri State and Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
The Mules (13-3, 7-1) hold a one-game lead over Northwest (13-4, 6-2) for first place in the MIAA just shy of the mid-way point in conference play for both teams.
Depending upon how their only regular season meeting turns out, Northwest will either drop two games back of first or move into a first place tie with UCM.
The winner is also guaranteed the tiebreaker since there's no return game in Maryville, essentially making this a two-game swing.
"Obviously, anytime there's no return game you put a little more into that game from an outside perspective," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "As a coach, our objective is just to continue to play well, play hard and not really get too caught up in specific games."
Over the years, the Mules have been the one team in the MIAA that's given Northwest the most trouble.
Central has won seven straight over Northwest and four in a row at the Multi-Purpose Building. Its the only multi-tenured gym left in the MIAA that McCollum has never won at.
Northwest came close to winning at UCM last year, battling back from a huge early hole minus an injured DeShaun Cooper to lose 66-64. The Mules also beat Northwest 76-63 in Maryville, preventing the Bearcats from winning the MIAA title outright. Eventually, Northwest, Central and Washburn all shared the title.
"I hope our kids don't go in with any fear or any extra intimidation," said McCollum.
This year's Northwest version has proven plenty capable of winning on the road even with Cooper gone for the year.
In five January road games thus far, the Bearcats are 4-1 and three of their four wins have been by double-digits. In the last two over Central Oklahoma and Southwest Baptist, Northwest has trailed for a total of 2:08.
Those two wins, which followed back-to-back losses to Missouri Western and Lincoln, coincided with two lineup adjustments.
Tyler Funk and Bryston Williams were inserted into the starting five prior to the UCO game, replacing Matt Wallace and Alex Sullivan.
Perhaps just coincidental, the new lineup has yielded immediate dividends at both ends, with the Bearcats averaging 70.5 points and giving up only 54.0 ppg over the last two games.
"I think it has more to do with us going back to to the basics and fundamentals," said McCollum. "The change is going to help when adversity hits just because that group doesn't hang their heads. There's a lot of positive energy in those five."
Page 2 of 2 - Central Missouri comes in as the hottest team in the MIAA, winners of seven straight games since a loss to Fort Hays State in the league opener.
The Mules extended that streak Wednesday night with a 72-60 home win over Missouri Western. UCM is a perfect 9-0 at home this year, taking down Northeastern State and Pittsburg State as well during an earlier stretch.
Central is the league's sixth-highest scoring team, averaging 74.1 points per game. They give up 67.3 per game, eighth-best in the league.
Senior forward Dominique Long (14.5 ppg), senior point guard Widgett Washington (11.5 ppg) and junior forward Charles Hammork (10.7 ppg) are the team's three leading scorers.
"They're probably the most talented team in the conference," said McCollum. "Pretty consistently, year in and year out, they're No. 1 in talent."
Not quite as talented offensively, Northwest makes up for it another areas such as defense and rebounding.
The Bearcats have limited the opposition to a league-low 60.7 points per game and rank third in rebounding margin.
Junior center Dillon Starzl averages a team-high 14.5 ppg on 62.8 percent. He's scored double-figures in each of his last six games and shot 60 percent or better in each one.
Senior wing DeAngelo Hailey (14.4 ppg) is a close second to Starzl in scoring. Sullivan, the team's third leading scorer, has found his shooting touch over the last two games, knocking down 6-11 three's.