LAS VEGAS — In the hallway outside of the locker room in Frisco, TX, Grant McCasland said that “This isn’t the end” and mentioned the NIT specifically as the opportunity to “win a championship with this team.” A few short weeks later, and North Texas is in the final of the National Invitation Tournament. Tylor Perry and the rest of the squad may be “boring” (according to the coach) and not want to spend a lot of time seeing the sights, but a nice contingent of Mean Green supporters are here, enjoying the food, drink, and games in America’s entertainment capital.
This game is a feather in the cap to the conference UNT (and UAB) are leaving, this entire postseason has been an acknowledging that C-USA was an underrated basketball league. It doesn’t mean much beyond that as there is little guarantee that the prestige generated here will carry over to the new league, the new opponents, in a new season. Grant McCasland is heavily rumored to be going to Texas Tech, and the futures of more than a few players on the squad is undecided. That fact is one reason why this team is so motivated to make the most of the experience. “I love these guys” says McCasland. There is no tomorrow. There is only this game, this time, this moment.
What does UAB do well?
- Offensive Rebounding & 2nd Chance Opportunities – UAB ranks 5th in the country in offensive rebounds per game (13.54 RPG). Also, the Blazers rank 10th in offensive rebound percentage (kenpom). The Blazers are extremely good at converting those offensive rebounds in to in 2nd chance points. They convert 8.2% of those of those 2ndchance opportunities (7th).
- Get To the Free Throw Line – They have a FT Rate that is 69th (kenpom) in the country, and 20.4% of their points come from FT’s (63rd kenpom).
- Steals and Quick Points – The Blazers rank 39th nationally with 8.1 steals per game and have a Steal % that ranks 55th (kenpom). Eric Gaines averages 1.9 steals per game (58th). When they do force turnovers the Blazers are good at converting them into points (12th nationally).
Things to watch: Is North Texas crashing the boards? McCasland made a point of discussing how well UAB beat NT in being aggressive and out-rebounding the Mean Green in that first half in Frisco. Also, is UAB pressuring Tylor Perry in the pick and roll and making him pass. North Texas likely has a counter to this ready. In the second half, NT eschewed the screen, and let Perry go at Jelly Walker early one vs one.
Where is UAB Weak?
- Mid-Range Shooting % – UAB shoots 33.8% from the mid-range which is 337thnationally. In their first match-up North Texas was able to force UAB into taking quite a few mid-range jumpers. It wasn’t until late in the second matchup that UAB really figured out how to get more dribble penetration to the rim.
- Turnover Timing – UAB doesn’t have a ton of other weak areas. They are a very balanced team. If we had to point out one area that could be a concern for them, it would be turnovers. They don’t turn it over a ton (103rd kenpom TO %), but we have seen them turn it over in late in game situations. North Texas nearly pulled off the comeback victory in Frisco with late pressure. UAB had a late turnover against WKU that really hurt them. FIU had a late run against them fueled by turnovers.
Things to watch: Jelly Walker jumped out and owned the moment in Frisco. BUT, he was pretty dim vs FAU. The FAU coaching staff told me the best way to guard Jelly is to “not let him get the ball” and that they thought Rubin Jones (see next section) did about as good of a job as you could on him. Jelly can shoot his way back into the game, and UAB is not out until the clock hits tripe-zero.
Also, can Moulaye Sissoko hold his own and not get into foul trouble.
Who Gets the Rubin Jones Matchup?
The question really should be is how is Rubin’s ankle feeling? The status of his health might give us an indication of who he gets to guard. There is no doubt that when fully healthy that Rubin is guarding Jelly Walker. Jones hurt his ankle in the 1st half against Wisconsin and gutted it out in the 2nd half. If Rubin isn’t guarding Jelly then he might get the Ty Brewer assignment. Brewer had 30 against Utah Valley on Tuesday night. Guarding Brewer would let North Texas shift Perry onto Walker. I don’t think North Texas would want to have Perry guarding Lovan, he’s too physical. Lovan is a better matchup for Huntsberry. We hope that Rubin is as close to 100% as possible because they need his defensive abilities to slow down Walker.
North Texas will have their game plan, but also have backup stuff. Huntsberry did well against Chucky Hepburn, but Walker is a different kind of player.
X-Factor Player – Can we say the whole team? If we had to narrow down it to one guy it has to be Moulaye Sissoko. Sissoko has faced down some worthy opponents during this NIT run. This might be his toughest test. It is not that Jemison is better than Crowl (Wisconsin) or Cisse (Oklahoma St). Really its that UAB has 2 good physical centers – Trey Jemison and Javian Davis. When Ousmane was available North Texas could rotate against these guys. Now Martinez who stands at 6’7 and weighs 215 lbs will have to spend some time guarding Jemison 6’11 260 and Davis 6’9 265. North Texas is probably going to want to limit that exposure. So Sissoko can’t get into foul trouble. He’ll have to play 30 + minutes of some of the best basketball he’s played this year. Oh, I forgot to mention he’s going to be vital in guarding the high ball screen action that UAB runs.
North Texas Keys to the Game:
- Keep UAB Off The Free Throw Line. UAB is at their best when they are getting to the FT line. When their FT rate is above 32% the Blazers are 18-2. One of those 2 loses was against North Texas. North Texas tends to foul a lot and they have a defensive FT Rate on average of 39.5%. The Mean Green have only kept their defensive FT rate below 32% in 11 games this season. They were 10-1 in those games.
- Limit UAB Offensive Rebounding. UAB is 18-4 when their offensive rebounding percentage is over 33%. In their 3 matchups vs North Texas this season UAB has only hit that number once, and that was the game that they won in Frisco.
- 2PT FG Shooting %. North Texas is 19-0 when they shoot 48.5% or over from 2PT range. They hit that number in both of their victories over UAB. In their loss to UAB it was 45%. UAB’s defense gives up on average about 47% with their 2 PT defense. UAB has given up a 2PT shooting % of 48.5 % or over in 18 games this year, they are 10-8 in those games.
What It All Means
It is for a championship. Both of these squads were picked as contenders for the CUSA title, and fell short. UAB beat North Texas, but was blown out by FAU in the final. For both, the NIT represents a second chance. For North Texas, there is a little bit of revenge on the table and also NT are +2 point underdogs. Andy Kennedy isn’t rumored to go anywhere (right now) but he will have to figure out how to compete while retooling. North Texas is losing McCasland (all but certain) and maybe lead assistant Ross Hodge, the long-rumored coach-in-waiting. In any case, this is the last we will see from these two teams who have given us some great entertainment in the league the last couple of seasons.