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CANCELLED

The league office announced — along with pretty much every other league — that the rest of the tournament is cancelled. This was the right decision, as even without the presence of fans, a basketball game — let alone tournament — involves many people.

This leaves North Texas presumably as the league representative to the NCAA tournament. Of course, this assumes that we will have a 2020 NCAA Tournament.

Wash your hands.

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Basketball

Tourney Time 2020

We are in full pandemic mode.

Oh, and North Texas basketball is having its best season in a decade.

Do not feel bad for thinking that is very North Texas because it is. You and I know. The dissonance acknowledged, let us remind the extreme among us that all of the precautions are for the greatest good. This pandemic is real and the most vulnerable are at real risk. Let’s not risk grandma’s life because you wanted to watch some live hoops.

Assuming the league tournament continues tonight, we have the Florida Atlantic Owls to prepare for. There will be no home crowd, just the bare minimum to broadcast the show and make it officially a game. All the jokes about it not being much different than the normal show are funny, yes. This was to be the best attended year for the Frisco. session of the tournament, however. North Texas was always the obvious missing piece the last two seasons. The three games NT have played in two seasons have been among the best attended. Tech and WKU also travel well. All three were top seeds.

It’s a shame. The games played among the top four seeds were all exciting and we had a good tournament ahead of us. It won’t be the same without fans there but it still might be compelling in a different way. Competition is its own motivation and there is a real chance that this is the last college basketball we will see for a long while. The big tournament will be played without fans if it continues at all.

Tonight

The Owls beat defending tournament champs ODU. They are big and tough and play solid defense but North Texas whooped them handily in January. FAU doesn’t have much of an offense and NT’s defense is good. Meanwhile, FAU’s size helps them have a mid-level league defense that will focus on CUSA POY Javion Hamlet. NT has a compliment of shooters and rangy athletes to take full advantage of any traps on the point.

Every once in a while NT gets sloppy with the passes up top and when Umoja Gibson has to do too much more than fire long range jumpers the team can be turnover prone. Assuming those are minimized, NT has a better than average shot to win this thing.

Any tournament game is all about the players, though. Any team can beat anyone and Jailyn Ingram is the Owls’ dude. He put up 22 and is real efficient about it. He doesn’t shoot it from three a ton, but he can draw a foul and score inside.

The real question for NT is whether they can hit the open shots they’ll get. A new venue is always a little strange and the Frisco Star is kind of weird at first. Beyond that, making sure Hamlet can pick his spots and not have to carry the team is good tournament-planning. NT has plans to win this thing and that is a very realistic plan. Sure, it is one game at a time but we cannot play our best five for 40 minutes and think it will not come into play on Friday.

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North Texas Hosts WKU

Forget the implications of this one. Forget that NT might do a good portion of the sealing up the regular season title with this win. Forget that it would solidify the seeding in the Frisco tournament coming up in two weeks. WKU has been something like the measuring stick for North Texas basketball for about 20 years. From facilities to banners, WKU has been the next level for NT for a good while.

This year, NT has the better record but WKU has the head-to-head. While NT has some talented players — conference POY candidate Javion Hamlet, for one — WKU has a roster full of guys who have done incredible things. They have an NIT final fours, back-to-back league title game appearances, and lots of raw ability in their pocket.

This is a big game and the athletic department has been unsubtly reminding everyone of the need to fill out the Pit and make it an event. The game is going to be on CBS Sports Network, the nearest equivalent to traditional cable programing the league has to offer. “No one remembers the game they just watched on TV” said one ad on twitter. For those of you not within reasonable driving distance, ignore that admonishment and make it to the game. The conference title game will be on the same network, so if you do not have it — find it and order it.

WKU has about a good of an offense as North Texas. The Hilltoppers rank third in Kenpom’ offensive efficiency ranking while NT ranks first.

The defenses are similar: NT at 8th (101.0) and WKU at 6th (100.4).

The real question about all this will be if NT can get the buckets against WKU’s athletic lineup. The challenge will be similar to the Tech game in that way. WKU is long and athletic and guys like Josh Anderson can change a game by being able to fly — like literally jump super high.

NT struggled late vs WKU in Bowling Green way back at the start of league play after playing the Tops tough. Back then, WKU had just begun to try to navigate life post-Bassey injury and NT was still figuring out themselves.

Both teams have been improved in recent weeks and NT has been super impressive in particular. Both squads also dropped their first games in Bonus play — both with some almost buzzer-beaters.

Javion Hamlet has been incredible running the point and that is why he is in the conversation for the league’s best player. He can get into the lane and find a high-percentage shot with that little floater. This is something that the Gonzaga-bound Ryan Woolridge was able to do but here is a crucial difference this year: Hamlet is a much better free throw shooter (and shooter overall) and does not get all the way to the rim. The latter means that he is under control a little more and can recover from a missed shot — and does not absorb as much punishment.

Umoja Gibson has not had to do much more than let it fly from any and everywhere — which is ideal– and James Reese has been lighting it up from distance as well. Adding to the chorus has been Thomas Bell, Zach Simmons, and Deng Geu being long and lively in getting rebounds and being active.

WKU’s Taveion Hollingsworth has taken more of a scorer role as Bassey has been out (43 vs Tech in OT! ) but Carson Williams — the transfer from N. Kentucky — has been amazing. Josh Anderson we mentioned, and Jordan Rawls has stepped into the ball-handling role as Hollingsworth steps in at the 2-guard spot.

This thing is essentially for the regular season title — something to be proud of but not necessarily the be-all, end-all. It should be very fun.

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North Texas vs Tech: 2020 Bonus Play

North Texas hosted Louisiana Tech in the first game of this year’s bonus play, the latest reason to hate the league leadership inappropriately. These teams are two of the best in the league not only in standings, but in play. NT came in leading the league in offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom, while Tech was third. Tech boasts a ferocious, athletic (as all good defenses are) defense that hurt NT late in the last meeting.

This game was the best this league had to offer: two incredible playmakers in Javion Hamlet and DaQuan Bracey making tough shots at the end of the game for their squads.

Bonus play will determine some seedings but North Texas was always going to have to win a tough game in the league tournament to get a championship. In the last game, NT overcame a relatively poor game to steal a win. In this one, they had an advantage but just came up short.

There are no moral victories that will satisfy the team, but this is one of those that should make you, the fan, feel god. Tech is a good team and has a really great defense. NT fought and nearly pulled out the win. Javion Hamlet was super clutch, and that big bucket to put NT ahead was the kind of play a championship-winning team will need.

One concern we had all season was the team’s inability to generate the right kind of shot late. Hamlet has been amazing getting into the lane and putting pressure on the defense. Here, his 25 points came on 7/13 shooting and 5/7 from the line.

He was only outshone by Bracey’s 26 and an off-hand floater.

One thing to note about Bonus Play is that Tech, FIU, WKU, and Charlotte are good teams and losing to any one of them is not a failure on the Mean Green’s part, but something that can and maybe will happen. That is the nature of this pod play set up.

NT hosted the 3rd place team, and now will travel to the 5th placed team (FIU) on Thursday. They will host Western (2nd) before traveling to Charlotte (4th) to end it. The 49ers upset Western on Saturday.

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Javion Goes Ham-let: NT 64 ODU 47

NT has wrapped up the first spot in CUSA pod play, where the league is divided up into pods to boost the strength of schedule for its best teams. NT finished the scripted portion of the year 12-2 and tops in the league.

The two losses were against talented WKU, who are beating UTSA right now and should finish in 2nd at 11-3, and Rice, the struggling but rebuilding Owls. There was also the epic buzzer-beater against Tech.

NT beating ODU eliminates the Monarchs from the top pod, and that means we will see WKU, Tech, Charlotte, and FIU.

Hamlet had 27 in this one, as NT cruised from start to finish. The ODU trademark man-to-man defense was seemingly left on the plane, and NT got good open looks from one or two passes and shot well. While ODU made a couple of runs here and there, there was nothing special to speak of and the NT defense was solid all afternoon.

The Mean Green are playing great ball right now and Javion Hamlet is the reason. He is in all the conversations for player of the year in the league and with good reason. His shooting from three (.385) and ability to get into the paint for little runners and hooks is a big reason why NT is tops in the league in offensive efficiency.

This season is the third straight impressive showing for head coach Grant McCasland. Last year NT started strongly but faltered around this time when injuries and stagnant play hindered the progress. This time NT is healthy heading into the most important stretch of the season: The Bonus Play + conference tournament.

North Texas is playing the most complete basketball in the league right now, but will be challenged by the likes of WKU in pod play. Beyond that, the league tournament is a crapshoot where one poor game can end your season quickly and cruelly.

It is great to see good basketball in Denton again. Much has been made of the last time NT saw the tournament — about a decade ago — and it was fitting that they honored the last team to make the trip. This blog used to write that getting to the tournament final is the expectation. It has been a long time coming to get back to even thinking that it is possible

Full credit to the staff and especially the players for an incredible season so far.

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Basketball Basketball Recaps

MBB: Rice Upsets NT in Houston

North Texas was expected to go to Rice and handle business. The thing about basketball is that it is a rhythm game and NT would be coming off a week-long break. Rice, after all, was on that same week-long break but at home.

Things like this happen in this game and we should not read too much into this loss. There were mistakes made — missed reads, missed shots, bad possessions and some confusion on defense. There were also some good things — good shooting, a little comeback, and some clutch plays toward the end.

NT got the looks they wanted for a good portion of the game but was not making them. Rice got themselves some good looks and made them. They also had a little more luck — a missed shot at the end of the possession falls into Javion Hamlet’s hand and he knocks it out instead of grabbing it, for example.

Short version: I don’t know that we make too much of this game beyond that NT still has some things to work on. There is another mini-break before traveling to Murfreesboro and then Birmingham. NT drops to 14-9, 8-2 and into a tie in the loss column vs LA Tech. NT of course has the head-to-head advantage over Tech by virtue of the buzzer-beating win on Jan 18.

NT shot well but had a slow first half start. They scored 34 in the first and 41 in the second. Rice had 44 and then 40. NT pulled ahead late but let it slip, with some missed shots and turnovers. Rice hit their catch-and-shoot threes and NT missed theirs in the last four minutes or so.

Zach Simmons was not as crisp, missing a bunny late. DJ Draper and Mo Gibson had 18 each. Hamlet had 15.

Notes: James Harden was in the house. There was a nice little crowd.

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North Texas Bests UTSA In Both Women’s and Men’s Basketball

In San Antonio, Jalie Mitchell’s squad cruised to a 79-55 win in a game played at 11am. In Denton, Grant McCasland’s group dominated UTSA at home while celebrating the 2009-2010 Sun Belt Champ squad led by Johnny Jones.

WBB cruised all game. UTSA cut the lead to 15 late but that was about all they could muster. Jalie said “there isn’t much to complain about.” True dat.

The men dominated throughout although Jhivvan Jackson got his team within five midway through the second half. NT responded to the run, and pulled away for a bit win. Honoring the 2010 team was a good moment and a nice link to the last time NT MBB were yearly contenders.

UTSA men is a terrible defensive team and NT took full advantage. Umoja Gibson had 27, and Javion Hamlet got 22. NT worked Jackson in the pick-and-roll early and often and made UTSA work. Jackson was able to put up some numbers but NT kept them at a distance, forcing him to get in the paint and pull up from distance with a hand in his face or from the logo.

Basketball always favors the offense, and the goal of defense is to force low-percentage shots and not necessarily prevent makes. It is a mitigation strategy. If he is going to make them from that distance that is a win for the defense. NT dominated and continues its dance around the top seed in the league. There is plenty of basketball to play so no one should get comfortable, but right now the team is playing really good basketball.

It is okay to smile.

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Basketball

MBB: Let’s Talk About Execution

The Mean Green are playing really well, but you may have read or seen some criticism here or elsewhere about the team. While the team has been winning, it has sometimes been closer than we would have liked. They play hard and well, even against really tough competition. However McCasland has had trouble getting his guys to get quality shots late in the game when the pressure is most intense.

Most basketball these days uses on-ball screens and relies on the ability to get your best players the ball when the clock is ticking down. Before that, many teams rely on old staples and new wrinkles to get into sets that will create good shots and some rhythm for their team.

North Texas runs a variation on the 4-1 out motion, with one big man surrounded by four players on the outside of the court along the three-point line. There are many ways to run this and many ways to teach it. Jay Wright’s Villanova probably runs the version you have seen run most effectively on the national stage. At its best it spreads the court, creating space for a big man to get buckets, while getting good spacing for open perimeter shots.

McCasland’s third year sees him with a team stocked with shooters like Umoja Gibson (he leads the league in 3pt% and is second in made threes), James Reese, Javion Hamlet, DJ Draper, and Roosevelt Smart. So far, NT has been able to create lots of shots for those guys and that is an indicator that 1) they are talented and 2) they can run the offense well enough to generate good stuff.

The team is first in the conference in offensive efficiency according to kenpom and is second in that measure according to sports-reference.com. There is a lot to like. Why, then, did the team look so poor against Louisiana Tech throughout the later portion of the second half? A good amount of credit goes to Tech, who defended well and whose long and rangy defenders made it tough to do anything.

We took a look at each of the possessions and we’ll break them down here. A couple of themes emerge and they are these: NT has good ideas but some poor execution. They have some weaknesses that should improve with more time in the system and at this level. Zach Simmons is good.

0-James Reese
1-Umoja Gibson
3-Javion Hamlet
4-Jalen Jackson
13- Thomas Bell
24-Zach Simmons

Situation: NT 43-41 9:05
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is in a the standard 4-1 look, with Hamlet in the “slot” looking to start the action. There are a number of different ways to start a given play within the offense, and a ball screen is one of them. It can come ad-hoc or via call. McCasland is yelling instructions frustratedly. Here, Zach Simmons comes high to set a screen in the “slot” for Hamlet. Javion uses it poorly, and this ends up a turnover. When we talk about “poor” ball handling this is one of those things. Everyone on the team is D-1 caliber, but there are levels to this thing even in that category.

We want to see Hamlet use this screen better, going shoulder-to-shoulder and if that fails, to not lose the ball. Also, I believe there should be an “exchange” when there is an action on the ball. The away guards should exchange places to occupy the defenders.

Situation: NT 43-44 8:07
Personnel: 13-23-4-3-0

Again the standard look and Deng Geu sets a “drag” screen for Hamlet to start the action. It’s a screen from the big on the ball to begin some early action while the defense is not yet set. This was popularized by the SSOL Suns and is all over the NBA and NCAA now. Geu slips and rolls to the rim as he sees Tech start to trap — this is something they did throughout the second half and it caused lots of havoc. The pass goes to James Reese on the wing, who should have shot this ball on the catch. One teaching point in this offense is that a player will never be more open than when he first catches the ball. Reese is one of our better shooters and we want this shot. Instead, he tries to take advantage of Geu being “unguarded” but that goes nowhere. In his defense, Tech’s Ledoux is long and might have bothered the look. Geu is not the post player that Simmons is, even though he is much more bouncy. The kickout pass is tipped.

Situation: NT 43-44 — out of bounds play
Personnel: 13-23-0-1-3

NT runs a set to get a ball screen on the left side of the court. This action is something like Motion Weak in the Spurs/NBA playbook, with Gibson setting a screen for the big man to get him a touch in the post. Geu sprints past the spot to set a screen for Hamlet. He rejects the screen and goes baseline where he is doubled. Geu and Thomas Bell both dive for the pass — a no-no from Bell — and the ball is lost on a bad catch. Catching passes is ball handling. When we complain a bit about handling — this is also what we mean.

Situation: NT 43-46 7:11
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

We start with a ball screen from Geu, but set differently. Here is in a “flat” look, but not quite. A good “flat” screen is parallel to the half-court line. He is angled a bit here, which makes me think he was just setting a screen. Hamlet sends a wing pass to Reese after rejecting the screen from Geu. Reese looks inside to the rolling Geu but doesn’t pass it.

A couple things about this: 1) When Geu rolls or slips, Reese should “lift” quicker and move in the same motion as the roll. This helps give Hamlet a better pass and 2) This entry pass should be attempted. It wasn’t, and that messed up the rest of the action.

The ball is reversed — a “slot” to “slot” pass — and there should either be an exchange from the wing players (Bell and Gibson) or a pin down for Geu by Bell. NT was running the same set to get Bell to screen for Geu but instead he kind of floated a bit because Geu had his man sealed off for the post up.

Because the backside players did not move much the defense is able to lock on the ball. As it is reversed to Gibson, the wing players could do the action again — screen or exchange. They do not and even though Geu does a good job showing for the entry pass, there is no easy pass for Hamlet to make, because Bell’s man is digging. Bell clears out by running the baseline, opening things for another entry attempt. Hamlet rejects the screen and drives to the baseline, he has a pocket pass available to Geu but instead pulls it back out to Reese who has moved to fill the open space. He shoots a step-back three when the ball is reversed back to him. The one he had to start the previous possession was much better than this look.

NT is running the play to get guys as open as Geu was early, but did not find him. That happens even in good offenses, but that should not derail the rest of the play. The action should continue in a nice flow with players reading and reacting to the defense. Here, they kind of break down after the first option is taken away (or ignored, really). They did flow into a ball-screen — a hallmark of the modern college game — but that was not really executed at a high level. We would love to see that pocket pass made to Geu to allow him to make a play or score over the smallish Bracey “guarding” the paint.

Situation: NT 43-46 6:29
Personnel: 3-0-24-13-1

We see the same action. Hamlet passes to the wing (Reese) and then cuts through to the other side. Gibson sets the same pin down for the C, in this case Zach Simmons but instead of reversing the ball over to get him on the right block, he seals while Bell throws it back to Reese and Reese gives him the ball. Bucket. This is a great little counter to the hedging that Tech was doing.

Situation: NT 45-46 5:46
Personnel: 3-13-1-24-0

North Texas gets in a “horns” look, with two guys at the corners of the free throw line. Hamlet initiates the action by passing to Simmons, which is followed by a “split screen” where Hamlet and Bell run and set a little screen for each other. This is a staple of the Princeton offense and more recently, the Golden State Warriors’. The bass goes to Bell, and Gibson sets a screen for Simmons to get him to the post.

This action is all set up to get Zach a post touch. You might notice that everyone essentially ends up where they have the past few possessions. The pass out to Hamlet is hard to make for Bell because of the ball denial from Tech — again, let’s credit Tech here — and when Hamlet gets the ball he is uncomfortable making the entry pass to Simmons. The ball is reversed, but Simmons wants it back at Hamlet to get another chance. When he gets it, he scores. Good set, execution is at about a C+, but our best player got a great look and scored.

You will notice that Bell and Gibson exchange after the pass and Bell tries to exchange with Reese, even though they are sort of arguing about it. There are a lot of ways to get player movement but exchanging positions is a great way to do it simply and make the defense look away from the ball. Even though Bell is exchanging somewhat hesitantly, it forces Bracey (25) to turn his head when the ball is reversed. The same thing happens to Archibald (3) as the ball moves from Gibson to Hamlet to get a better angle on the entry pass. Instead of Archibald seeing the ball and moving to be in position to double up on the post, he reacts after Simmons has already received the ball and is making a move. Good player movement creates space for teammates.

Situation: NT 47-46 4:45
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Thomas Bell sets a “flat” screen for Hamlet, something that is a staple of the 4-1 motion, especially when the opposition is pressuring the ball high. This is more of a 1-4 high look, that is typical of late-game possessions. We have basic screen-roll, 2-man game and Hamlet uses the screen well. We see that the simple act of going shoulder-to-shoulder with his screener opens up the middle of the floor and the pass to Bell, who does a great job of attacking the closeout and getting fouled. He made both.

Another thing to notice is Gibson’s “lift” action on the left side. As Thomas begins to roll, that triggers the “lift” from Gibson who comes up from his corner spot to create space for the kickout pass. Because Bell pops out behind the arc, Gibson is crowding him a bit for a second, but it works out. You can see Ledoux (5) lose track of his man Gibson. He realizes he has to step up and that means he has to abandon his previously great position. Instead of being in place to stop the drive, he vacates the area (rightly) to guard Mo. Again, good player movement creates space.

Situation: NT 49-48 4:01
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we see the issue with only being familiar with the first or the basic action. NT runs the standard motion actions. There is a pass to the wing, a cut away by the passer (Hamlet), Gibson sets the screen for Zach and there is a ball reversal to try to post him. Here, Tech knows the play is coming and they jump the pass and there is a turnover. Here we’d like to see a counter action. Maybe Zach sets a screen for Hamlet and he cuts through. The Spurs have a counter for their similar set.

Teams will scout the hell out of this team when there is time to prepare. NT needs to be able to get into secondary actions easily.

Situation: NT 49-48 3:42
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

This is a different set, likely owing to the fact that Tech was jumping on the other stuff so easily. Zach is giving a hand signal — “stack” — and NT gets the ball on the left side with a look to post Zach on the seal. He misses but this was a good look out of a solidly-executed set.

Reese gets the entry pass, but looks confused about the next thing to do. I would like to see a cut through here, but that could bring a double on Zach. Gibson is asking for an exchange and that would work just fine. On the opposite side, you can see Tech is not respecting the passing ability of our guys, nor the shooting ability of Thomas Bell. It would be nice for Bell to set a “flare” screen for Hamlet to get him an open three on the cross court pass from Simmons. This all results in a good look for Zach, though, so we cannot complain too much. He just missed.

Situation: NT 49-48 2:58
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we have an indicator of the work to be done. McCasland is screaming “thumb down”. It looks like NT wants to run a “continuity” set, which is essentially just a series of the same couple of actions: 1) a ball screen on one side, 2) a reversal to the big man into a ball screen on the other side. Typically this is run continuously until the defense makes a mistake or over-hedges on something.

NT There is confusion from everyone and mostly, the movements are slow. This can be run at a deliberate pace, but everything needs to be crisper — screens set solidly and the cuts sharper. Some teams use this to get into a set or just as a default action when the play breaks down. NT called it so it is a set to get into a ball screen.

All the motion gets Zach ready to set a ball screen for Hamlet, just like in the initial start of the previous sets earlier. The roll by Simmons triggers a “lift” action by Reese, where he pops up or “lifts” up from his original spot. The idea is to give Simmons space to roll and take away the defense’s help, as we saw with Gibson earlier. Tech does a great job of being active and tipping the pass. Jean (1) was tough all night. Having active hands is playing great defense and they do that here.

One note here — typically teams defend the “continuity” by dropping a guy in the center of the paint like Tech does here. He is sitting there but since NT does a good job of transitioning into the “regular” set, Thomas Bell is is wide open. Ledoux (5) is actually pointing to his teammate to pick Bell up, thinking he is communicating with him on the exchange by Gibson and Bell. This is an excellent example of how combining actions — flowing one into another — is a great way to take away the typical defensive tricks and plans that teams develop for a particular set. NT created two open looks and Hamlet was not wrong to look for Reese on the roll. The next level is recognizing who is open everywhere.

The deflection leads to a scramble and that leads to a kicked ball. NT runs an out-of-bounds play and NT runs something for Gibson to pop out and get a shot. You can see McCasland signal “zipper” on his tie. That’s typically the name for actions like this to get a shooter a look from the top of the key. Tech traps it hard — again, good stuff — and Mo attacks it and misses at the rim. Generally speaking, this is a good idea, but he is not going to make a living attacking the bucket.

We probably could use a better screen from Bell at the free throw line, as Gibson just needed a half-second longer and he could have let it fly. He does a good job finding something off the dribble, but we maybe would like to see a go-to action if they trap it like they did. Maybe Reese lifts and Bell continues to set a pin for Zach to get him a look inside. If Bell got big and called for the ball he would have drawn three players, and opened up a passing lane for both Reese and Hamlet.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:56
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is running the action to get Zach the ball in the post. The bench is screaming instructions to everyone. Mo does not quite know he is supposed to be on the other side of the floor. He moves to his spot right as the action is beginning, throwing off the timing a bit. It looks like they tried to get Zach on the fake pin-down counter again. Reese could have probably found him but did not let it go. There was no exchange on the ball reversal, which makes it harder to get Zach the ball. Archibald (3) stays lurking in the paint ready for it and NT is not making him pay with any action. When Bell throws it to the wing, he cuts through (standard action) and you can see that Archibald (3) cannot stay and ball-watch anymore.

Beyond that, NT is reluctant to run a pick-n-roll with Reese and Simmons, which would be a default action when the entry pass is not there. Instead they abandon that position and begin again up top with Hamlet and Simmons — the standard pairing. Hamlet is doubled, Jean (1) is harassing Hamlet and NT gets a bad shot from Reese.

This was a crucial situation and NT was playing great defense here. They let Tech off the hook by not getting a good look. The details are crucial. NT was playing hard and that likely contributed to the somewhat slow offensive actions here. Zach was doing a great job battling for good positions but was not getting rewarded for it.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:14
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

After a couple of poor possessions, NT runs a set to distract Tech and get Zach in a two-man game with Hamlet up top. There are a series of screens to get Zach to sprint up and screen for Hamlet. Jean (1) is hounding Hamlet and forces a turnover just as the play begins. Mac is furious at the call. Wasted possession. Most of that was fine, and we should give a lot of credit to the defense there. Jean was fantastic and really forced the turnover. NT could not get into what they wanted because of it.

Situation: NT 49-48 0:35
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

A couple things happen here. Jean (1) is again hounding Hamlet and that eats up time. By the time NT is into their set, the staff is screaming at Mo to come over. Reese is yelling at him, too. Zach sets the screen high, both Bell and Mo run to the same spot in slow motion, with a look like they are trying to figure out what is supposed to happen. Zach is trying to adapt by reading the play. Hamlet is doing the same. There is a time out to reset.

Again, credit Tech’s defense here for making it tough to get into the look. The thing to learn here is that good teams like Tech will make it difficult to run your favorite play. There has to be better execution here — to the level where it is second-nature.

Out of the timeout, NT runs the same zipper play for Gibson. There is a ball screen for Hamlet to get down hill as Mo “zips” up to get a look. This time Tech does not trap it, but Ledoux pops out to challenge it. It is a nice enough look.

After that, Hamlet got the winner all by himself.

The verdict? North Texas got Zach some good looks out of various sets but failed hard when it did not work. The goal of the offense is to get a quality look every time down the floor. While A lot of that was Tech reading the actions and taking the first and second options away. NT looks like they are still working through learning the sets. Instead of reacting to the defense, they are thinking too much.

Again, the team is getting buckets at an efficient rate, but the good teams they’ve faced this season have done a great job of shutting that down late, as we saw. Tech held NT scoreless for a long stretch. WKU did the same. Marshall was more unlucky than bad in that game. NT will face some good defensive teams that force the offense into their second and third actions and the league title will likely be determined by how well NT executes those in crunch time.

Right now, NT does not have a player that can just go get a bucket on his own steam. Mo tried to make a play but was stuffed. Zach needs a good entry pass. Hamlet made a play in the open court, but against a half-court set, he needs good spacing and a good screen and the awareness to use those screens effectively.

NT has made a lot of improvement and will continue to do so as the season progresses. Repetitions are needed and that will only come with games. Having lost some tough ones against good teams has helped NT win this one. Playing this tough team will help NT prepare for the next tough game.

NT is 6-1 in the league and is getting better because they have a lot of room to improve. That is exciting.

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MBB: North Texas 79 Rice 59

The Mean Green moved to 6-1 in league play after beating Rice in the trappiest of trap games. They escaped Ruston with their first win there since 1952 in dramatic fashion. This game against a lowly Rice squad had the potential to be a let down. Instead, the squad had control throughout before breaking it open in the second half.

That is something that good teams do and right now NT sure looks like a good team. The things that this team struggles with were not game-changers in this one, and that is a welcome relief. Rice could not hang with NT long enough to make the late-game execution be a big deal.

North Texas hosts the dangerous UTSA Roadrunners on Thursday and UTEP on Saturday. Both have glaring flaws but also are very dangerous. UTSA’s Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace are flamethrowers while UTEP is one of the more talented teams in the league. The Miners came back from 24 down against UTSA last Wednesday and nearly repeated the feat in the return trip to San Antonio the following Saturday.

This NT team has the tools and the talent to compete and everything is clicking well enough to be very hopeful. There are plenty of things to work on, and that is exciting. This team can be even better and that is awesome.

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North Texas Beats Tech 51-50 in Battle of CUSA Leaders

The Mean Green were ready for the moment in Ruston, jumping out to a big lead, with some crisp offense and their typically tough defense. This was typical of NT in conference play, where they have been at the top of the league in efficiency offensively and strong defensively even if slightly undersized.

The Bulldogs came in as a top-60 opponent, and this win is a feather in NT’s cap in a season that has seen McCasland’s group play some tough competition strong until the end. Even in the lone conference loss to super-talented WKU (although missing Bassey) they played tough until getting out-executed in the end.

This game saw something similar. NT withheld a surge from Tech and briefly lost their lead. NT went to Zach Simmons for some clutch buckets in the middle of the second half until Tech wised up and changed up their coverage to disallow easy entry passes to him.

After Jacolby Pemberton made a free throw to make it 49-48 North Texas with 4:09 left in the game, no one scored until Amorie Archibald’s layup over Zach Simmons with 5 seconds left in the contest. He was fouled but missed the free throw. NT inbounded and Javion Hamlet drove the length of the floor to get a floater off at the last possible instant — this was reviewed –and scored the winning bucket.

The review went on for ages, and there was no clear view on the broadcast that could say definitively either way. The Thomas Anderson Center scoreboard operator refused to adjust the score even after the referees announced the decision and NT came away winners.

Offensive Execution

North Texas struggled against the harassing Tech defense late, again, something that is commonly seen. North Texas had trouble running clean sets either through miscommunication — McCasland screaming the play to the ball handler or yelling instructions to a given player on his intended responsibility — poor passing, or just bad reads.

The fact that NT can run the offense crisply at times indicates this is just a familiarity problem. They can run their sets sharply when they know what to expect, but adjusting on the fly and reading the defense is still a work in progress.

North Texas got a big buckets from Gibson, Simmons and of course Hamlet when it counted and that is what it takes to win. Someone needs to make the buckets and everyone needs to play great defense.

Yes, The Defense

The defense was incredible, with Zach Simmons defending all over the floor. One reason teams do not like their big men going to challenge shots on the three point line is that that leaves no one to rebound inside. NT has played with smallish lineups for two seasons and still manages to get huge rebounds. NT defended and rebound. Unfortunately, the one time they blew a coverage — allowing Amorie Archibald to get middle on the screen-and-roll — was the biggest moment. Before that they forced Tech into tough looks and one-shot possessions for four clutch minutes.

In the end, NT is at 5-1 in league play after beating one of the toughest teams in this league. Charlotte was previously undefeated in conference play but dropped their game in Bowling Green this afternoon.

NT gets a day break before hosting Rice on Monday and then UTSA on Thursday.