All seasons that do not end with a trophy presentation end badly. For North Texas, who this time last year was feeling much better about itself and its program, this was a doubly bad game.
In some ways, however, it was a relief.
“We had some guys playing with some things that you wouldn’t believe. It’s inspiring, that leadership” said Zach Simmons in the post game press conference debrief.
McCasland said “we had our sights on the NCAA tournament” so this is it barring some fluke of a Selection Sunday.
North Texas basketball finishes 21-12, one win better than last season’s CBI tournament team and six losses better to boot. It most ways, it was a better year than last. Why does it feel so devastating? Well, the terrible finish to the year, after a 20-4 start, NT fell seven straight times.
Tonight, they fell to the better team. Grant McCasland blamed himself in the post game, crediting the Western Kentucky defense and their game plan to deny entry passes and make things difficult.
WKU coach Rick Stansbury said they focussed on Umoja Gibson in particular, limiting his touches and “not letting him get 7 threes tonight.”
The game plan worked for Western.
North Texas struggled in the first half. At the 7:50 mark, Roosevelt Smart had just travelled and WKU led 22-8. This was not about the effort or even the energy level. It was about talent and defense.
WKU defended everything well. They denied the ball and the next pass and the on-ball stuff that NT was killing FIU with. They denied entry passes and swing passes and NT was travelling and double-dribbling because they had to make second and third moves to create space.
Grant McCasland said “we got sped up.”
The Mean Green made a little run with a little over a minute left in the half to get something going. The crowd, ready to celebrate anything positive jumped on that and began a North/Texas chant. Simmons scored a tough bucket and then the defense forced a WKU turnover.
Rick Stansbury, WKU coach, was upset and called TO. NT couldn’t convert but that got the energy up. NT forced another stop — a shot clock violation — that got Stansbury as red as the uniforms.
“When North Texas cut it to 13 we got five straight to make it 18 and they never threatened after that” said Stansbury in the post game press conference.
It was true. Tavieon Hollingsworth was finding space in the midrange and pulling up for clutch jumpers. He had 23 on 9/15 shooting.
In the end the half ended in stark contrast to last night’s first half. Instead of Ryan Woolridge hitting a three-quarter court bucket, he was stripped of the ball as time expired. NT was down 31-16 at that point, shooting 25% in the first, turning the ball over 11 times.
WKU had shot a mediocre 38% with 6 turnovers of their own during that period.
North Texas played Western 35-36 in the second half, to little progress. The first half deficit was too much. Ryan Woolridge had 13 and Jordan Duffy had 11 to lead NT. Gibson added 7 and only went 1/7 from distance.
Zach Simmons had 8 and 13 against future NBA-er Charles Bassey, who only had 9 and 8 himself.
What It All Means
Grant McCasland was noticeably devastated after the game. The last half of the season was full of injuries and poor play. The roster is kind of a weird mix, and McCasland deserves credit for getting this short team to out-rebound and defend really well.
The offensive end has a nice one-two punch in Ryan Woolridge and Zach Simmons. Unfortunately, the spread attack went limp too often. DJ Draper’s 3PT % dropped to 36% from 42% while making just over half his total from last year.
Roosevelt Smart went from a 36% gunner to a 27% guy and his offensive rating went from 110 to 86.
Was it injuries? Mental focus? It is difficult to say but it is McCasland’s job to know and change it. Still, whatever quibbles the fan base has with this program are just that — quibbles — given the tremendous progress this team has made in just his two years at the helm.
It is easy to see a future where NT is one of the favored teams in Frisco, but it is a long way before NT has a program the calibre of Western Kentucky, a basketball mainstay for decades.