Both basketball squads were in action yesterday and both produced quality wins. The men are always going to get a little more praise than the women, but Jalie Mitchell has the more recent tournament success.
Last year NT rode a pair of upsets into the semi-final round before losing to eventual winners WKU. This year they beat 8th-seeded Southern Miss in an ugly game to earn the right to take on top-seeded Rice at 11am.
The last time NT took on Rice — then ranked #25, now ranked #24 — deep into the game with the Owls pulling away in the 4th quarter to win. Rice is undefeated in league play, and is led by 6’9″ Nancy Mulkey and 5’9″ Erica Ogwumike.
After the last matchup Jalie Mitchell was quoted as saying
Our players and staff believe we can beat Rice and play with anybody in this league. I thought we played hard for 40 minutes, and I think we will be prepared to win as many games as possible,Jalie Mitchell
The men have a giant hurdle to overcome as well in WKU, the most talented team in the league led by imposing 6’11” Charles Bassey.
The last time WKU visited the DFW area, the beat NT with a dominant first-half in front of a huge Super Pit crowd. The beginning of the now well-known shooting woes began there.
Still, NT always plays a little bigger than their short-stature suggests and there is hope. F Zach Simmons played outside of his mind yesterday, and Umoja Gibson looked like the sharp shooter he needs to be when he didn’t have to take ball handling duties. With Ryan Woolridge and Jordan Duffy back in their normal roles, everything resembled the look this team had early in the season when they were top-four contenders and not also-rans.
It was just a little over a month ago that we all thought the WKU game in Denton was a preview for pod play and not the beginning of a slide down the standings. Whatever the case, this team’s road to the NCAA tournament was never going to be with a regular season resume.
It, was and still is, all about the league tournament.
So here we are, the most talented team in the league with the best team in the conference possibly waiting after that. This is what we all wanted from North Texas.
North Texas vs WKU
Line: WKU -3.5
Let us be honest: the numbers say we are bad offensively, good offensively, and do not match up well in any significant category.
The real question of course, is if any of that matters come 8:30pm on Court A.
Basketball is a weird game in which it is heavily reliant on a team, but then can become an individual sport in one or two crucial moments. Teams need to run the offense for the majority of the game, but when it comes to winning time, sometimes the best strategy is giving the ball to your best player and having him make a play.
North Texas fans have quibbled over who that guy is on this roster. My vote is probably Ryan Woolridge, given he can get to the rim seemingly at will. His issue, aside from recent injury, is his outside shooting and well, his free throw shooting.
Those are two big areas that can and do limit his ability to deliver in the clutch.
When you think of the league’s best — Jhivvan Jackson, Jon Elmore, DaQuan Bracey and the like — you think of players that can get a bucket when their teams need it.
WKU has something like a similar problem. Their whole roster is stacked — Bassey, G/F Josh Anderson, Lamonte Bearden, Taveion Hollingsworth — but unlike last season when Justin Johnson was the go-to guy, I do not know who gets the ball in crunch time here.
If North Texas can stay close to Western until the end, I like their chances late. The crowd will be decidedly pro-green, and that can make a difference. Western has blown some big leads this season, and that is evidence of a lack of execution and experience. They are vulnerable despite being talented.
How to Win
Zach Simmons needs to be match Bassey inside. We cannot expect another 7/7 performance but the aggression and decisiveness he showed vs FIU is key. Bassey will not let Simmons get position or go up with power, and Zach cannot help him by being passive or trying one too many post moves.
Mike Miller is the only other consistent scorer who can get the rim not named Ryan Woolridge. He was attacking on the catch — the whole squad was — and that is the kind of play NT needs.
Umoja Gibson was incredible shooting yesterday, and he probably regresses a bit so NT will need one of Smart or Duffy to take up that burden.
Roosevelt Smart is and should be more of a scorer than a shooter. He was off yesterday, even missing a wide open shot where he had a chance to spin the rock before letting it fly. He can get to the bucket and finish, and more of that is needed.
Gibson said WKU baited them into shooting too many threes early in the last matchup. I imagine the whole staff is aware of that for this game.
North Texas can beat WKU but it will require some good fortune. Every major contributor played big minutes vs FIU and had to break the press for the entire second-half. That kind of thing takes a toll. I imagine we will see some poor shooting tonight.