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North Texas MBB Splits CUSA Opening Series vs UTSA

North Texas split the opening series in CUSA play on the road against UTSA. It is disappointing when you consider how much the Roadrunners have struggled and how bad their defense is. It is heartening when you consider NT had not tried the back-to-back thing yet, and how good Jackson/Wallace are for UTSA.

The games:

NT 77-70 UTSA
NT 69-77 UTSA

Let us start with the positive. There was a lot to like here. Thomas Bell played a hell of a two-game series, and his versatility defending the entire floor and ability to score from everywhere provides NT a lot of options. He had 17 in the first game, just 7 in this one, but five blocks and two steals over two games. He hedged strongly to force Jackson and Wallace off their groove and did his job well.

Zach Simmons basically owned the final couple of minutes in game one, and showed signs of being able to do the same in the second. His foul trouble early on Saturday and his turnovers on Friday were the weaknesses.

Really, though there was a lot to like. James Reese had four steals on Saturday. This is great stuff:

NT had everything lined up for a win in a game in which they struggled but could not hit the big shots late — Reese missed two, Bell missed one — while Jackson and Wallace came up with some big ones. We like to say that basketball is a simple game and it sometimes comes down to whether you make or miss a shot that you like.

In both games there were many things that can use some improving, however. Javion Hamlet has not found his groove and looked hesitant. When NT does not have him going, they can get a little stagnant, and the basketball decisions are suspect. There is also a little too much hesitancy. In one of the final sequences, Bell passed up a rhythm three from the top of the key, and pumped to drive. He stopped, looked for an outlet. McBride caught it, sort of drove aimlessly to his right, and then gave the ball up to Hamlet. Javion, to his credit, drew a foul to end the possession.

When any team is shooting in rhythm, they play and shoot better. NT struggled this afternoon, going 5-of-22 from distance, while UTSA shot 10-of-23 (most of which was Jackson/Wallace combining for 9-of-19).

It is easy to get grouchy in this one but that’s the game sometimes. North Texas played about a C+ game and was up one with about 3 minutes to go. UTSA had 45 points from their two best players, at home, and 16 from their big man when Simmons was in foul trouble. That was about as good as that team can play.

The defensive efficiency numbers took a hit with the way that UTSA shot in this one, but that was not really poor effort or mental mistakes. NT challenged most of the shots and had good defensive movement. The same can be said about the offensive efficiency numbers. NT’s numbers dropped a bit (to fourth, from second) after missing so many open looks. That is the game. I expect that to rise a bit. Last year NT was the most efficient squad in the league, but without a guy like Umoja Gibson — a guy with a hairpin trigger who could light it up — NT is a lesser team. We can still expect NT to be in the top-5 of this league in both categories.

What Does It Mean?

At the concussion of this weekend only one team will likely be undefeated — UAB is likely going 2-0 vs USM this weekend. NT will give themselves plenty of chances with that excellent defensive effort. The turnovers and hesitancy on offense can be fixed in the coming weeks. Coach McCasland has to find Javion Hamlet some rhythm, and look to address the new tendency to double Zach Simmons in the post.

Speaking of Zach, he has not quite played his best, but he showed some nice things. His ability to find cutters, and get points with some smooth post-move makes him one of the league’s better big men. I’d like to see him use his face-up game more. He can hit that little 15-footer and that would also limit the charging fouls he is drawing on those back-downs he does.

Next Week

UTEP in Denton (Covid, willing) for two. The Miners have three guys that can play in Souley Boum, Jamal Bieniemy, and Bryson Williams — all recent transfers in for Rodney Terry. Boum can shoot, Bieniemy can get to the bucket with easy and Bryson Williams has size at 6’8″. NT’s defense and pace should slow down their offense a bit, but the Mean Green still need Javion Hamlet to get back to last year’s level.