It is Monday, the day after the Super Bowl (I was rooting for the Bengals 🙁 ) and it is also Valentine’s’ Day. None of the above really means anything to me, because the Mean Green are on a 10-game win streak and I am thinking about how they will do Thursday and Saturday against FAU and UAB, respectively.
If you are late to the party — no judgement — let us reset. North Texas won the regular season and was set up to have an incredible tournament before the pandemic changed things. Last season, in the weird pandemic-influenced schedule, the Mean Green had a less impressive regular season but went on an incredible post-season run (tournament championship, NCAA first-round win).
This year NT are without the catalyst of those teams in Javion Hamlet and were expected to take a bit of as step back. UAB — the opponent next Saturday — is ascending, coming off a good year and ready and expected o challenge seriously for the title and more. Louisiana Tech was very good last year — probably the best team in the league overall — and is the other squad expected to make noise. They are injured this season, and have dropped some games, but still remain very good and Kenneth Lofton Jr is the big reason why.
The questions coming in were these:
Who will do the crunch time scoring?
The hope was Tylor Perry, and he has done this well. Also clutch has been Thomas Bell. Hoops is a team game and no one guy can do everything. Gregg Popovich put it this way: “I don’t draw up a play for Kahwi Leonard to score, but for the San Antonio Spurs to score”. The idea is that the guy best able to score is the primary option for the team to score. That means if there is a defensive strategy that changes the calculus, another guy is the best option for the team to score. That means kick the ball out for an open three if it is there, or dump it off, or bring the ball back out. Whatever the situation calls for is the best one. Perry has been great, and Thomas Bell has been a play maker — this leads me to the next item:
Who will do the crunch time play-making?
Hamlet did both for this team. He had the ball in his hands a ton, and ran the pick and roll when it mattered. His calm and ability to score made him super dangerous, and his teammates were ready to set big screens or hit big shots (McBride, Bell, Simmons). Right now, it is a combination of Bell and Perry and in some vital moments in recent games it has been Thomas Bell. You might recall that TB is a 4-man, and yet he has brought the ball down court, got into a post-up look, and then has found Ousmane, Scott, and Perry in huge moments.
Will they have the same grit?
The last two years the biggest moments brought out the biggest play from this squad. Hamlet’s points per game in the last 10-minutes and overtime were ridiculous. Thomas Bell hit clutch buckets, McBride did too. Simmons scored over the league defensive player of the year with under a minute down two scores. It was huge. Big time stuff. Big time defensive stops, everyone making good decisions or overcoming bad decisions with effort. This season? Well there haven’t been as many situations to do the same, but so far, so good. At LA Tech, NT waged a comeback against a tough opponent and hit a big shot to win it. They stayed calm after missing the go-ahead shot (Perry) but got the rebound, relocated and hit the next opportunity (Bell to Perry).
Can they defend?
The backbone of this team is effortful, intelligent defense. They give second and third effort but are also prepared. That is huge. Running around with no plan will do some things, but a good offense will turn that effort against you. NT knows the opposition’s tendencies, and gives second and third efforts to all the actions — first (usually a screen), second (a cut, or back cut), a third (the next action, a pass, a denial) and that frustrates the opponent and leads to success. NT has defended not just well, but amazingly well. Thomas Bell is able to guard 1-5, in most situations, and even presumably slow-footed guys like Ousmane have done a great job flying out to hedge screens and fly back to stop pick and rolls. They defend.
Can they challenge for a title?
The expectations were to reasonably challenge — like, given their limitations and the competition, can they challenge as best as they can? This team was expected to end their run in the quarters or semis against a good team and lose in a valiant effort where the differences in quality were the separators. Right now? This team looks like it can win it all.
There are six games left in the regular season
at FAU — surprisingly good, and very good at home. Can score in bunches
at UAB — great defense, Jelly Walker is a scoring machine
USM — young team but not really good
Tech — tough squad looking for revenge
at UTSA — trap game, because they are terrible and it is on the road
at UTEP — solid team that can bite, and it is on the road
NT is 11-1 in conference, UAB and Tech are 9-3. If NT loses away to UAB, then the Blazers will have the tiebreaker and reduces the wiggle room. The goal for the conference regular season is to increase the odds of winning the conference tournament. That is one by earning the highest seed possible, and making sure the team is ready to play tough games and execute in tough moments. NT is winning that race right now — for clarity, the top two seeds get that coveted bye — and has some room to make mistakes. That isn’t a pass, or encouragement to make these mistakes but just acknowledgment that the team can absorb some bad luck. Last year the team had two gut-punch losses at home to the Blazers that sort of set them up for success in the tournament. It made it much harder and nearly cost them, but they pulled through.