For as long as MGN has been in operation, it has been common to hear that “North Texas is a sleeping giant” in both football and basketball. While that may be true in football to some extent, it has always been the case in basketball. Hoops is the only major sport that can absolutely ignite with the right combination of talent and coaching. The NCAA Tourney prints money, and basketball is the kind of sport that lends itself to personality and stories. Unlike football, you can see their faces.
Denton, like most of Texas, has a love affair with football, however. This is partly the reason that a team as good as Grant McCasland’s still has to jump up and down for attention. To be clear, I mean from the casual fans out there. The people who know basketball appreciate Grant’s work and have rightly praised him and his staff. NT is ranked highly in the mid-major watch lists. There is a lot to like and appreciate about this program.
The Mean Green have entered a new phase of development. Mac is in his sixth season at the controls, and it took two seasons before NT won anything they didn’t have to pay for. Mac coached three straight 20-win seasons while be built the culture. Quote from the Almanac
When we first got here, we were trying to convince them we could get to this level. Now, they know the expectation. We’re fortunate that quality players want to come be a part of what we’re buildingGrant McCasland, to the Almanac
In 19-20: Regular season champion. In 20-21: Conf Champ; NCAA first round upset. 21-22: Regular season champion.
That is good and quality coaching with very good results. Last year we saw a very good NT squad with a lot of veterans carry the momentum of the NCAA upset over Purdue to win a regular season crown. The season ended in the NIT with a loss to Virginia at home in Denton. This, of course, after an upset loss to Louisiana Tech in the Frisco tournament.
There is simultaneously a lot to like about this team. There is also plenty of room for growth. NT played with a thin roster that squeezed everything out of the talent of guys like Thomas Bell, and Mardrez McBride. North Texas had little room for error as they relied on superior efficiency on offense, and frustrating defense. NT traded consistency for some versatility, at least, on paper.
Now, let us note that it is a beautiful thing to say “We are going to be great on defense” and go out and make that so. The coaches set the expectation – -the famous clip of Mac saying “I want to win championships and that means Zach is going to fight over the screen and slide two steps” highlights the attention to detail and expectation-setting — and found the players to make it happen.
The resulting formula means NT has a lot of scrappy, under-recruited guys with chips on their shoulder. There is something of a trade-off when that happens. NT is finding guys that fit the system and are willing to work hard because they have worked very hard for their station in life. However, this often means that NT is not necessarily blowing up the recruiting rankings. The last part of the quote above — “quality players want to come be a part of what we’re building” — is key to the long-term strategy in Denton for as long as Mac wants to be a part of it.
Continuing with that thought, this season will go a long way toward determining the future for Mac. While the AAC will bring more quality opponents and more resources, it also means a natural break point for Mac. Why try to build up NT in the AAC when he can go to a bigger program with a heftier salary? He is a competitor and the allure of challenges on a bigger stage, with fuller arenas and more fanatic support has to appeal to him. Winning in CUSA (again) with the third-best team in the league (on paper) would have to convince the donor class at some power five school of his ability.
As of this post, North Texas has stumbled a bit out of the gate, but not enough to hurt themselves. Wins are wins, and even an unimpressive win vs Southern Nazarene is more about building long-term quality while not damaging any resumes. The game vs St. Mary’s on November 13 is a key resume-building moment, where Tylor Perry and others can shine in the early season.
Outside of that, the name of the game is competing in CUSA and preparing to beat UAB and or Western in the conference tournament. Both are loaded with talent, and have good enough coaching to make full use of it. North Texas beat UAB on the road last year, thank to Perry heroics, but also were beaten at home in the return game. The stumble against Tech meant NT had to watch as UAB lifted the championship trophy in Frisco, home turf. The Blazers have only added more talent and boast the fastest backcourt in CUSA. The league had all it could handle in Jelly Walker, and his supporting cast just was upgraded. Meanwhile, WKU brought back Sharp, their circus-tall big man, and reloaded their roster for another run. Whatever jokes you want to make about them falling short of a league title, they always are in the conversation.
North Texas has their hands full and we know they will give every ounce of effort to achieve this seasons’ goals.
- Tylor Perry G Sr. 13.5 ppg 5’11”
- Rubin Jones G Jr 8.2 ppg 6’5″
- Tyree Eady G 5th 10.3 (at North Dakota St) 6’5″
- Aaron Scott G/F So 4 ppg 6’7″
- Abou Ousmane F Jr. 10.2 ppg 6’10”
- Kai Huntsberry G Sr. 19.6 ppg (at U of Mary) 6’3″
- Jayden Martinez F 5th 14.9 ppg 6’7″
- Moulaye Sissoko F So. 2.4 ppg 6’9″
- Chris Morgan F RFR 6’8″
- Rasheed Browne G Sr. 1.0 ppg 6’2″
- Matthew Stone G So. 0.6 ppg 6’4″
- Christian Moore G Fr — 5’11”
- Arsh Matt G RSo — 6’3″
- Grayson Allo G RF — 6’3″
Our rough estimate of abilities:
Ball Handlers — Perry, Jones, Huntsberry, Eady
Scorers — Perry, KH, Martinez, Eady
Shooters — Perry, KH, Martinez … Jones is getting there and I liked Scott testing his range and Eady made 34 last year
Bigs — Ousmane, Sissoko
Stretch bigs — Martinez, Scott
Tylor Perry did not play vs Southern Nazarene, but that was precautionary. The is going to be the heart and soul of the squad. NT played him starter-minutes even though he didn’t actually start any (but one) of the games last year. Perry is known for his ability to get clutch buckets and a cursory search of his highlights will reveal that fact. He came up big vs Tech, UAB, Texas State, and will be asked to do the same again.
Rubin Jones is recovering from off-season injury and will be slowly re-introduced as the season progresses. He has played a lot of backup point guard minutes, but is also good enough to play at any of the three small roles. He can handle the ball, spot shoot, and attack the rim. He’s main value is in defense — he shut down some of the league’s best in clutch minutes — like Cobe Williams of Tech last year. His length and skill gives him loads of versatility. His mom is also a great tweeter.
Aaron Scott has the potential “to be one of the greatest North Texas players ever” says Grant. You can see why: he is a ridiculous athlete, and has the length to do damage. He backed up the bigs last year and brought energy to the role, but his future is probably at the three. He showed some spot shooting prowess late in the year and that will do wonders for spacing. Watch for him spotting up, but flying in for easy slashing points off the ball.
Tyree Eady scored in double-figures for North Dakota State last year, and is an early option for NT to take the load off of Perry. From our Eady post when he joined:
He played the three spot his entire career and I imagine he will slide right into that coming up next season. From a brief look at some highlights he can put the ball on the floor and score in traffic. He can step out and shoot it. No one will ask him to do the bulk of the scoring, but not afraid of it. He scored in double-figures 17 times or so in 31 games last year. His high was 22. That is goodstuff. We complained late in the year about the over reliance on Perry and Bell and wondered if NT could get scoring from other players. Eady looks like he can add 10 points at least and that is a hell of a lot of scoring in a North Texas offense. We cannot and won’t project numbers right now, but the idea is that NT added another guy that can score and ball out.
Kai Hunstberry is another scorer. We questioned his ability to hang up 20-point nights given the transition between divisions, but he managed 20 in his first game (a rough one). He looked like the only other guy who could score (along with Ousmane) and that is good and bad. He is a senior transfer and should bring some experience and quality to the spot. He should battle for starter minutes at the 2 and 3 spots as Jones recovers and the rotation is settled.
Abou Ousmane has turned himself into a weapon. He played spot minutes in his first season — few but crucial minutes against the likes of current San Antonio Spur and CUSA DPOY Charles Bassey and showed out. He has trimmed down in size, but sill plays “big”. He isn’t a superior big man that is going to Shaquille O’Neal you, but he has enough size and strength to play bully ball against most opponents, and enough finesse to get buckets against those he can’t. He’s a good college big man, and that goes a long way. He will be asked to carry more offense, and do more playmaking than he did last year. Thomas Bell did some post work for NT, but there is no one that obviously takes that spot. He will be asked to do some Zach Simmons-type stuff. He scored 23 on 9/20 shooting and grabbed 10 boards vs SNU. Not a terrible start.
Jayden Martinez did not get much run vs SNU, but was an intriguing transfer. He has size, and has shown an ability to shoot the ball. He also can run in transition and get buckets. The “new” version of NT this season will try to get a few more easy buckets instead of simply grinding out the game all the time. Some of that is by design, and some of that is because the players can do that better than last year’s roster. Martinez is one of those guys that should help with that if he plays up to expectation.
Moulaye Sissoko has good size and speed but didn’t get a lot of run vs SNU. If he can spell Ousmane well, he should get good minutes and maybe even be the second big in an all-big lineup –maybe Ousmane, Sissouko, Martinez, Eady, Jones — that could be a change up for situational stuff.
Morgan, Zephir, Browne, Stone, Moore, Allo, Matt, fill out the roster and can earn some minutes through some work and situations. They will not be asked to do a whole lot of on-court stuff. Browne, Stone, and Moore combined for just 3 points (Moore) in a combined 58 minutes vs SNU.
North Texas is picked to finish either second or third (depending on your source) and that is largely because everyone believes in the coaching staff. North Texas is always well-prepared, and plays tough basketball. This season should be no different, but the challenge is doing that with new guys.
The league is tough, and the standard is current CUSA tournament champ UAB. They have two dynamic guards and a tough roster full of physical players. WKU has talent, and Middle had a surprising turnaround last season with young dynamic athletes leading the way. The league’s dregs — Southern Miss, former good squad ODU, and Marshall — all decamped for the Sun Belt and the league is a little better for it. The competition will be tighter, and there will be plenty of quality games against tough opponents. Louisiana Tech is always talented, but they are breaking in a new coach.
Rough estimation of the league:
UAB Look out for Jelly Walker and Eric Gaines and the Blazers reloaded. They also bring back Jemison, Buffen, and Logan. Just a tough roster
Western returns Jamarion Sharp, the 7’5″ center, along with Dayvion McKnight, their outstanding junior guard. Also back, is Jordan Rawls, one-time Hilltopper who returned.
Middle is a little higher than maybe they deserve but I severely underestimated their squad as Nick McDevitt had them beating UAB up until the final moments of the tournament. Teafale Lenard is a handful on defense, and Deandre Dishman is a great passer for an undersized big man.
FAU is always somewhere in the middle of the pack, but look for them to make something of a leap. They still have quality players (Mike Forrest is back) and they added some transfers to boost scoring. Lots of experience here and they have the potential to make real noise.
UTEP is basically a whole new team, with Boum, Kennedy, Bieniemy all leaving. Tae Hardy came over from Southern Miss, along with like five other dudes. They will press and harass everyone like Golding’s teams did at ACu
Louisiana Tech has a new coach — Talvin Hester — that will focus on defense. he’s from the school of Kelvin Sampson and the like. Tech has good athletes and is led by Cobe Williams. Gone is Junior Lofton, but back is Isaiah Crawford — Kawhi-lite.
Rice underperformed last year after over performing the year before. They will still run a fun offense, but the question is if they can get stops. They were just a sieve.
Charlotte is still not impressing after four years under Sanchez, and lost Jahmir Young. But the idea is trading some locker-room negatives for some “guys from programs we respect” with some “toughness” is the plan. Aly Khalifa is good offensively, but doesn’t move that well.
FIU is back to having “pace and urgency” after battling a lot of COVID stuff last year. They lose Brewer but gained some depth with transfers and freshman. The will run and do a lot of pressure stuff.
UTSA had an awful defense last year and their entire offense was Jacob Germany. They reached into the transfer portal for some guys, but I don’t know that will help much.
NT opened preseason as Kenpom 66, and takes on St Mary’s (37), Fresno St (112), Grand Canyon (109), FAU (85), WKU (95), and UAB (56) — all in the top 150. The early-season trip out west will set a lot of expectations and anchor the season. As usual, the plan for getting into the NCAA Tournament is through the league tournament, but with some big time performances early, it is very possible to sneak into a spot. That is very unlikely, however.