Denied a grip of first place in its last game, Northwest Missouri State will try to regain sole possession of second place in the MIAA when it hosts Northeastern State tonight at 7:30 p.m.
The Bearcats (13-5, 6-3) trail NSU (14-4, 7-3) by a half-game for second place, meaning a win would vault them a half-game ahead and a loss would drop them 1.5 games back of the Riverhawks.
This is the only meeting between the two teams this year and the first since 2001.
Hurting the Bearcats cause is the likely absence of 6-8 junior center Dillon Starzl who suffered a knee sprain in Saturday's 60-50 loss to Central Missouri. Starzl is the Bearcats second leading scorer (13.9) and top rebounder (5.1 rpg).
If Starzl joins All-MIAA point guard DeShaun Cooper on the injured list, the Bearcats would be that much more bereft of scoring during a critical two-game homestand that concludes Saturday with Emporia State.
"It's always important in this league to win your home games," said Northwest Missouri State head men's coach Ben McCollum. "Right now, we're in third. It's an important game, another one. You can't use excuses or anything like that. Dillon or no Dillon, Cooper or no Cooper, we're still a program and we need to take care of business."
Northwest is playing at home for the first time since a puzzling 70-65 loss to last-place Lincoln more than two weeks prior.
The Bearcats won each of their next two games at Central Oklahoma and Southwest Baptist before concluding a second three-game road stretch with the loss at UCM.
Northwest tied its season-low with 50 points and shot a season-low 33.3 percent from the field in Warrensburg.
NSU is the second hottest team in the MIAA behind the Mules, with four straight wins after a 3-3 start in league play.
In that stretch, the Riverhawks have beaten Missouri Southern and Central Oklahoma on the road, and No. 21 Washburn and Pitt State at home. Their last game was a 73-54 win over the Lions Saturday in Joplin.
"Just a really solid team," said McCollum. "They play in the half-court and they pack it in defensively. Offensively, they've got a really good post player inside and a couple shooters. They beat you up with screens. It's going to be a 40-minute game. They don't blow teams out and they don't get blown out."
A low-scoring game is expected between the two league leaders in scoring defense.
Northwest permits a league-low 60.1 points per game, and NSU is holding teams to 62.4 points per game.
The Riverhawks average five points more per game (73.2) than Northwest and rank sixth in the conference in scoring.
Page 2 of 2 - Like the NSU women's team, the Riverhawk men are deadly from three-point range where they shoot a league-high 40.8 percent. In the win over Washburn, they made 13-18 three's.
NSU also shoots a league-high .793 at the foul line and is second in field goal percentage (.483).
Junior guard Bryston Hobbs (6-0, 170) is the Riverhawks top scorer and ranks fourth league-wide with 17.8 points per game.
Jermaine Bransford, a 6-7, 225-pound senior forward, is the team's second leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and leads the MIAA in rebounding (10.1 ppg). Senior guard Ethan Anderson (6-3, 205) gives the Riverhawks a third double-figure scorer with 11.4 points per game.
Northwest's only healthy double-figure scorers are senior guards DeAngelo Hailey (14.1 ppg) and Alex Sullivan (11.4 ppg).
Everyone else for the Bearcats is averaging under seven points per contest.
"(Grant) Cozad could probably step up his scoring," aid McCollum. " (Kyle) Schlake, that's not really what he does. He's not a great post scorer. He's more of a defensive rebounder. I think our guards are going to have to attack the paint a little bit more. I think we're going to have to move the basketball more together and then obviously put a premium on getting stops."