After last Saturday’s loss to UTSA, we had some questions. The Roadrunners hit a bunch of shots and it put NT at the bottom of Kenpom’s defensive efficiency rankings in the conference. To the trained eye, however, it was evident that NT did not play bad defense. They were a little unlucky. The game ultimately came down to making shots, and UTSA hit theirs and NT did not.
Then came Friday, when luck completely was on the Mean Green’s side. UTEP nearly had a program worst for points scored, and shot 20% for the game. NT played typically effortful defense but was helped that UTEP could not put it in the ocean. Saturday, UTEP bounced back, taking an early lead with much better shooting — in particular from Agnew. That kind of thing is to be expected. UTEP has talent, and everyone can have an awful game. You play this game long enough and terrible shooting nights will come for you, too.
You can always control your defense and effort. NT was a little janky on offense, turning the ball over, standing around, a little hesitant. Defensively, they were active, challenging every shot. For a couple of stretches, UTEP had no field goals but were living off foul shots. NT was a little too effortful, fouling shooters on the three point line.
A sign of a good basketball team is that the lows are not too low, and if you called Saturday a shaky performance, it was not super obvious. Javion Hamlet is the engine of the team and while he did not play well for most of the game, he dominated the final five minutes. He got into the teeth of the defense for buckets, passes, and foul shots. Zach Simmons was doing the big man work and while we criticized him on twitter for his tendency to overthink the play, he still was the best big man on the floor tonight.
Throw in some timely shots from Rubin Jones, James Reese, et al, and you have a nice ten-point win at home. On a day that saw big swings — it was like revenge Saturday — in the league where teams that got blown out flipped the script in game two, NT held off a good team. It is something to be proud of.
I do not know if I would call NT as good as they were last year — Hamlet is not at the same level, and there is no equivalent of Umoja Gibson — but this year’s slate of conference play may not require that same level of basketball to win the league. Anyone can beat anyone in this one and NT has enough of the ingredients that even the most talented team has some flaws — if you read CUSAReport you have seen that WKU can use more shooting, La Tech as well. NT has a guard that can get into the lane and score, find teammates, and hit free throws in Hamlet. They have a big man that can score and find his teammates in Zach Simmons. They have versatility in Thomas Bell, and shooters in Reese, Jones, and McBride.