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North Texas MBB vs UTSA: Pandemic CUSA Basketball Preview

Last week we wrote a mini-preview before the scheduled UAB series on New Year’s weekend. UAB had to postponed because of COVID protocols and so NT instead scheduled a road game vs Loyola-Chicago that helped prepare the team for the upcoming conference slate, but did not add to the win column.

This week, we start with two roadies vs UTSA, an all-offense outfit that relies on Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace for the entirety of their offense. Last weekend the Roadrunners were taking apart by a run-and-gun Rice squad. In game two, the Runner duo struggled in their iso-heavy offense and the Owls ran away with it easily.

North Texas displayed a much stronger defense against Loyola-Chicago but struggled against a physical squad.

The League And Opponent

North Texas has not played a conference game and UTSA is 0-2. It is really early in the season so we rank them so well. Over on CR, we put NT at 4th, based on what we have seen:

We have not seen NT against CUSA Competition so we dropped them a bit. Playing the back-to-back is a learning experience and NT has yet to do that thus far so they are behind the learning curve a bit. That said, they learned about themselves in the non-conference loss to Loyola-Chicago. The defense is there and is tough, but the offense gets into some struggle-fests. How will they fare against Charlotte, WKU, or Louisiana Tech and Marshall’s defenses? Based on the talent coming back from last year and the new additions we think they will be okay, but it is hard to know.

We consider UTSA to be bottom-half of this league. Jhivvan Jackson, an expected challenger for top scorer in the nation coming into 20/21, has been woefully inefficient this season. He has put up offensive ratings in the 100s in his three seasons thus far — but has only managed a rating of 87.6 this year.

Keaton Wallace is in the same situation. He has an 86.7 rating coming into this season.

Whereas head coach Steve Henson had advocated for a free-flowing, modern offense with an emphasis on three-point shooting for the past few seasons — to some acclaim — the current Runner offense is a “your turn, my turn” look that I suspect is drawing from the Chris Paul/James Harden model.

The problem is there is little spacing to help out. No one is threatening to rain threes if you focus your defense on Jackson/Wallace and the interior attack led by 6’11” center Jacob Germany is not enough to make you pay. He’s shooting .458 from the 2-point range on 48 shots.

Compare that to NT’s Zach Simmons, who is shooting .643 on 42 shots. Thomas Bell is shooting .594 on 32 shots from 2.

The Games

North Texas should expect a better defensive effort from UTSA, but they simply are not capable of playing the kind of defense we saw in Chicago. That Rambers team was physical, dialed-in, and made anything NT tried to do look like the hardest task possible. UTSA at their best cannot reach that level. Still, the threat comes from the Roadrunner offense.

They shoot well at their best, and if they are ever going to break out of their season-long slump, it could be now.

NT should be able to get the kinds of looks they got against the warm-up games from Dec 15-Dec 22. A little reminder of the level of play that is required to beat good competition was welcome.

KenPom has NT winning by about five.

Four factors NT Offense – UTSA Defense

  • effective FG%: NT 55.1 – 57.2 UTSA
  • turnover %: NT 21.0 – 17.7 UTSA
  • Off.Reb %: NT 26.7 – 25.6 UTSA
  • FTA/FGA: NT 24.0 – 37.7 UTSA

Four factors UTSA offense – NT Defense

  • effective FG%: UTSA 46.5 – 44.5 NT
  • turnover %: UTSA 18.4 – 23.5 NT
  • Off.Reb %: UTSA 28.5 – 28.5 NT
  • FTA/FGA: UTSA 25.5 – 27.2 NT

Javion Hamlet should have a good two-game series against this squad. There is no one on the UTSA roster that can obviously check him. Rice had two guys basically run riot against this squad from the backcourt and that should be the case with Hamlet and James Reese. Similarly, Zach Simmons should get lots of opportunities against the slow-rotations and mistakes.

One key will be hitting open shots. If UTSA has a defensive philosophy, it is that of a tired uncle playing his nephew: “I’ll let you shoot that.” They challenge shots slowly, and late. It is a make-or-miss game and NT could have an empty gym and still miss a shot. It is possible. They may be too open this weekend.

Last year NT won this in a route, but Jackson scored 37 (Wallace 24) but Umoja Gibson had 27 o to lead NT. James Reese shot 4 of 6 from deep and NT shot 8/16 overall from three.

Will I Be Entertained?

If you are a UTSA hater then putting a whooping on them is always pleasurable. This has the makings of a blowout in at least one of the games. ESPN has NT at an 83% favorite based on their power index.

What To Watch For

As we mentioned, Hamlet should be able to get to his spots much easier. Zach Simmons also should be able to get post-ups more often. The Ramblers denied him the ball often, and made entry passes very difficult. The bread-and-butter of the offense are Simmons post-ups and Hamlet pick-and-rolls. Neither were easy for NT this past week.

North Texas has designs on competing for the league title this season and that means taking care of inferior opponents. UTSA has talent, but is playing poorly. McCasland and the squad should make sure that there are no upsets this weekend.