Exit Interview: 2019 Basketball Team

No one wanted to go out and say “Injuries are why we struggled late, and ultimately why this team underperformed” as no one wanted to “make excuses” but still, the injuries were mentioned and well, that was the real reason.

After the tournament was over for NT, Zach Simmons and Ryan Woolridge could be seen limping on Friday. It was not the usual post-game soreness, but actual pain.

Not many teams at this level can overcome that kind of thing. We knew this team was over-reliant on Woolridge’s contributions, playing him huge minutes often last and this year.

If he went down or out, NT was going to be in a bad spot. That is not surprising or even something to blame the staff or the program for. It is the nature of the game. The roster is only so big, and recruiting limitations mean you cannot simply pick up whomever you want to rebuild your roster overnight.

McCasland said his goal was to get to the NCAA tournament, and given the scheduling, that road was always going to be through the league tournament. To do that successfully, the team needed to earn a second-day spot via bye through earning a top-4 seed.

That mission failed, as NT’s late-season collapse kept it out of the top pod, ensuring the best seed it could get would be the 5th spot. They fell all the way to 10th, after a disastrous pod play schedule in which no one could shoot or defend, or take care of the ball. This is where injuries took their toll and NT limped into the league tournament with seven-straight losses.

The win over FIU was dramatic, cathartic, and well, fun. North Texas blew out the team that had handed a big loss to NT in Miami just the week prior. Revenge gotten, NT went into the quarterfinal round vs WKU with some hope, but nothing serious.

They were blown out handily, and that is forgivable. NT had to play perfectly against the league’s most talented team and the most disappointing part was that they did not even muster much of a fight.

Asked if we could expect some CBI or anything, Grant said “we set our sights on the NCAA Tournament” which is an elaborate way of saying “no.”

The CBI and CIT tournaments are pay-to-play ideal for giving, say, Marshall another set of games to basically send out Jon Elmore with another tournament. North Texas used the opportunity last season to continue to build the program under McCasland and experiment with the set of guys that would play the most this season.

As it was, it all went well. From the CBI opener to the WKU game in February, NT only lost 5 games. They went 21-12 this season, completing back-to-back 20-win seasons since the Johnny Jones era. Realistically, this program was going to give a nice conference tournament run but come up short to the ODUs and WKUs of this league.

That is basically what happened. NT finished with one more win than 17/18 and six fewer losses. Home attendance was up, and they won a league tournament game. All told, we had improvement across the board.

So why the lingering anxiety across the internet fan base? Well, some of that is just typical North Texas angst. The rest is because there was plenty to be concerned about watching this team play. The team defended well — they ended as the number one defense in efficiency according to kenpom.com — but suddenly could not score worth a damn.

The early season success was predicated on four guards around Zach Simmons. Theoretically the small ball would be vulnerable to size in rebounding and defense, but the hustle and athleticism helped NT lead in those categories even against some of the bigger and better teams in this league.

The advantage to playing small-spread ball is shooting and quickness. Unfortunately North Texas’ two best shooters from last season — Roosevelt Smart and DJ Draper — regressed significantly. Smart went from being a threat to being a bad shooter. Incredibly his 3pt percentage dropped from 37% last year to 27% this season. His offensive rating dropped to 86.9 from 110.7.

Anecdotal evidence: he hit 20 points just twice — 20 exactly twice — this season. Compare that to the number of times he went for 30+ last season: 4 times, including a 42-point explosion vs Rice.

DJ Draper dropped from being a sharp-shooter who could change the game to just another guy shooting in the 30% range. He finished the year shooting 37% from distance, making only 16 in conference play compared to his 36 last season. He shot 42% last year.

The whole season is not on those guys in particular, but they had big drops in efficiency. Jorden Duffy dropped a bit also, mostly on this missing more threes than last year (six fewer on ten more attempts).

North Texas has five guys that take greater than 20% of shots for this team. Only one of them is 100+ in offensive rating: Michael Miller. He’s graduated now.

Going Forward

NT needs more height, some dynamism, and someone else that can be a threat to attack the basket aside from Ryan Woolridge, and Zach Simmons. Also, it needs more from the man they call Rose. He has had a tough year mentally, emotionally, and physically.

If he can get back to being the guy we saw last season, NT will be loads better.

Jalen Jackson, the commit from Wager in San Antonio, is a point guard with good athleticism and a nice handle. Watching the tournament and seeing Ahmad Caver, Zack Bryant, Tyree Griffin, Tavieon Hollingsworth and DaQuan Bracey handle the ball really highlights and issue NT had when Ryan Woolridge was hurt.

Jackson addresses that backup PG need. NT can get away with more small ball if the guys that sat can light it up from distance. Umoja Gibson can thrive when he doesn’t have to create for himself and can simply catch and shoot.

Wish List:

  1. Backup Big
  2. Go-to scorer — either Rose of 17/18 returns or a guy to push him for minutes
  3. Another ball-handler

This program had a good season despite the poor finish. Grant McCasland completed his first 2nd year at a D-I school. He previously took Arkansas State to a 20-win season and NT to the CBI title last year.

This league is wide-open. NT went from a laughing stock to top-five for a good portion of this season in just two years.