KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even in the midst of a showing good enough for an MIAA title, the 2017-18 Northwest men’s basketball team never felt loose.

Now-senior forward Tyler Dougherty remembers a talented senior class feeling the weight of backing up a national championship and never finding the full joy of playing the game.

As the Bearcats enter a new season off an undefeated Division II title and picked No. 1 in the MIAA by the coaches, they see a different makeup in this group.

“The tension that was felt from that team after the first national championship, we couldn’t ever relax and have fun,” Head Coach Ben McCollum said. “The expectations were overwhelming. This (team), it doesn’t seem that way so far, but we haven’t played a game yet.”

Though the Bearcats lose National Player of the Year Joey Witthus, four All-MIAA-level starters return in sophomore guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard, junior Ryan Hawkins and senior Ryan Welty.

While there were singular leaders in the past, from Zach Schneider and Joey Witthus to an extent, it’s leadership by committee in the Bearcat locker room.

“I think it’s more a collective leadership this year,” Dougherty said. “It’s guys who are experienced but young, like Diego and Trevor, and they’re pretty mature about it and help lead. It’s not anything that needs to be said but any everyday thing where they come and want to get better. They come with intensity everyday and energy.”

Though Hudgins was MIAA Freshman of the Year, Bernard served as the right-hand man in the backcourt. From being the second-to-fifth scoring option on any given night, McCollum didn’t have much to say to Bernard about offseason improvement.

“For a true freshman to come in and play at the level he played with the maturity he played with, you just don’t see that ever,” McCollum said. “A lot of that is his competitiveness, his toughness, his will to win. He’s elite in that regards to stuff. Now what we’ve tried to add is the process piece.”

The Bearcats finished last year 36-0 and begin the season with an exhibition at Duke.

Youthful Griffons striving for consistency

Missouri Western was tabbed 12th in the preseason men’s coaches poll after finishing in the same position a season ago.

The Griffons will replace a pair of All-MIAA standouts in Lavon Hightower and Bryan Hudson and will lean on youth to fill out the roster.

“We’ve got a chance to be one of the youngest teams in the MIAA this year. There’s about eight true freshmen and redshirt freshman on the roster that could be competing for playing time, and two sophomores,” second-year head coach Sundance Wicks said. “We have a chance to be really young and are trying to figure it out every single day.”

With youth comes a raise in incoming talent from previous years that appears ready to help sooner than later. The coaching staff feels high on the potential of true freshmen Reese Glover, Jaron Thames and Alex John to compete immediately, with redshirts in John Anderson Jr., Will Eames and Zach Anderson ready to join the fold.

The charge will be led by All-MIAA sophomore Tyrell Caroll and forward Tyree Martin, who was starting as a true freshman before a knee injury.

As they are hoisted into the fold as on- and off-the-court leaders, Wicks knows the value in seeing success from last year’s leaders.

“For Tyrell, Tyree and anybody who sat our bench last year and redshirted, to see those guys and what it takes to be successful in this league … and set the bar pretty high from what it has been, it was a big learning experience for those guys,” Wicks said.

Brandon Zenner can be reached

at brandon.zenner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.