It was coming. The Mean Green offense had pulled out some big comebacks and had a few struggle-feats offensively recently. It made for dramatic endings (UAB, Tech) but it was playing with fire. In this one, UTEP came out swinging and punched North Texas in the nose. After a couple of minutes the Miners were up 15.
North Texas was having trouble with UTEP’s physicality on the ball, got in foul trouble, couldn’t hit a free throw (17-32, including Thomas Bell’s 6-16), and had no luck (McBride and Bell stepping on the line when getting steals late). After all of that the squad still were down 5 and were within striking distance. The shots did not drop this time, unlike vs Tech and UAB.
If North Texas had to lose — and I do not necessarily believe it is good to break up a win streak with a loss, but it can be depending on the mentality of the team — it was a good loss. There was very little chance that NT as going to get an at-large bid, and with the win streak now broken, selection committee members who were skeptical can now point to this loss as a reason to keep NT out. That path was never Plan A, and winning the league tournament was going to always be the goal. The rest was just bonus.
There are many reasons for any loss, but in this one, it was not because they were not giving the effort. It would have been forgivable for McCasland to simply write it all off as a loss, play some bench dudes like Stone and Wright and call it ‘preparing for the tournament’. Instead, everyone was diving on the floor, and fighting through screens. That is how this team is built and one of the many reasons they have won 23.
Thomas Bell was bruising the rim with his free throws but … I liked it. He got repetitions. He was aggressive, scored 20 on 7-8 shooting. He’s at his best when he’s looking for his shot first, and being a facilitator late. We can live with missed free throws — I mean, they won the regular season with him doing that — as long as he’s getting in there and wreaking havoc. It is inefficient, but fouling the entire opposition out is a side benefit. North Texas worked their way into the game time and again in the second half, and it was largely because UTEP could not keep Bell off the offensive glass.
There is a week before the quarterfinals in which North Texas will face either Rice or Charlotte, and while neither is overly impressive, they both can win a game if NT is not playing good basketball. Defense has been there, but on days like today when the other team is in the bonus early and getting free throws, it is very tough.
MGN will have more (we are planning a podcast tomorrow) on the tournament and what to expect, soon but any team that has a go-to scorer is dangerous late. This afternoon, Souley Boum was finding space and hitting seemingly impossible shots. We know how that works, because Tylor Perry does the same for our squad. Jahmir Young for Charlotte is one of those guys. The work to limit the impact of those shots comes from stopping the other dudes from getting buckets. Guys like Jamari Sibley. He had 11 big points, just his second double-figure outing since January 15th.
What It Means
North Texas’ streak is broken, but having wrapped it all up the last couple of weeks, NT is still the champion of the West Division. The bracket is tough but anything worth doing is going to be hard.
Charlotte is not scary, but they should be taken seriously. The winner of WKU and Tech is beatable, but will be a challenge. They both have talent, even if they aren’t the same team they were last year. If NT gets through the semis, it is a possible meeting with UAB or Middle, or a team that beat one or both of those squads.
North Texas will have to earn their tournament win. They like the grind, and even in this loss, they showed they have what it takes to fight through adversity. I cannot see worse luck, worse refereeing, or the same kind of poor play from NT again and those were the primary drivers of this loss. That isn’t to say that NT cannot lose — they certainly can — but that it should take a bigger, better effort from the opposition for that to happen.