The beauty of basketball is that there can be so much strategy inside a simple game. The goal is to outscore the opponent and that has been done with physicality, speed, thoughtfulness, aggression, preparation, and all combinations thereof. Grant McCasland’s group is different that last years’ version, but it is also the same. It is fun to watch the guys make the right play damn-near every time down the floor, and to challenge just about every pass and cut on the other end.
Coaches will tell you that the details matter and they add up into wins and losses. In basketball a turnover is not as big of a deal as an interception is in football. There are so many more possessions and the opportunities to score are different but NT treats each one like it does matter so much.
I will not judge you for hyping up UTEP a bit — they are a good little CUSA program that is going to be tough to deal with under Golding going forward. I called their win streak a bit inflated because they beat ODU (poor), UTSA twice (awful), FAU (surprising!), FIU (meh), and Rice (sure). Wins are wins, of course, and I will not begrudge anyone enjoying a win streak, but we also have to be realistic in this thing. I have seen a lot of basketball and reserve my right to be unimpressed by unimpressive things, folks.
It is only right to have the same steely-eyed, cold-hearted judgement when looking at the nine-gamer for the boys from Denton. So let’s. Middle (solid), Marshall (meh), Western (okay), Charlotte (solid), ODU (poor), USM (bad), Tech (good!), UTSA (awful), UTEP (solid). The two best wins for our guys were the trips to Western and Tech, and Kenpom calls those ‘B’ games. That means our eyes and his numbers are seeing the same thing.
Let us get into the game a bit, before we discuss the larger themes of the team. A note: I skipped NT beating up on UTSA because I will not watch that terrible UTSA team and also I hung out with family after a long week.
NT 66 UTEP 58
This game was hyped as a defensive contest, and we did see some quality defensive possessions. Ultimately, NT had more ways to score, and more guys that could score and do offensive playmaking than did UTEP. The Miners still hung around for the first half before getting obliterated in the middle of the second period. Given NT’s pace of play, what looked like a little 10-point lead was really a blowout-calibre number. It was something out of 90’s NBA basketball where a 20-point lead was near-insurmountable. Modern basketball’s space-and-pace tendencies mean more shots, more threes, and more comebacks. North Texas’ willingness to be patient is remarkable in this context.
Cheesy announcers will call it “grinding out a possession” but NT is not struggling to find a shot, or having to do anything tough mentally or physically. They are not kicking out to a guy and clearing the floor and hoping and praying they make a move. It is deliberate in the literal sense of the word: done consciously and intentionally. Fully considered; not impulsive, done or acting in a careful and unhurried way.
North Texas is hunting for great shots. They will take them if they come early –witness Mardrez McBride attacking a closeout and dunking with the left hand as UTEP was defending the five-out spread. Watch as Perry attacks the pick-and-roll and finds a cutting Ousmane, or a shot on the wing. They will take the open looks, but they don’t play like the first decent look is the only one they will ever see. They work the offense. They screen, re-screen, and go to the next option. They keep the pressure up on the defense and watch as it opens for them.
It takes trust in the system, in the coaches, in each other, to execute this kind of thing. Too often, it is easy for guys to abandon it and say “this isn’t working I will just make something happen.” Not this team. There is a time for letting some individual brilliance shine — again, see Tylor Perry breaking down a defender and getting where he wants to go. There are a lot of possessions, however, and spending the majority of it making everyone a threat is a great way to maximize the chance of winning.
UTEP has some of this same philosophy in effect. Souley Boum and Jamal Bieniemy can score from just about anywhere, but when they cannot get the ball where they want it most? Well there was no one else on the Miner squad that was scary enough to make anything happen. North Texas got shots at the bucket (Ousmane, Bell) or wide open looks from distance (McBride) every time down, while UTEP was getting pressured.
Take a look at the box and see the numeral version of what you saw with your eyes: NT had five guys in double-figures and UTEP had two. Both team had the same night shooting from two: UTEP (24/44) NT (23/45).
It is too bad that NT cannot shoot free throws well as the team would be putting up bigger offensive numbers. NT plays with aggression and authority — especially from their big man doing big man things in Abou Ousmane. Last year in the tournament and in spots he stepped up and played big minutes — unscared — against the league’s best post threats. He has looked great in these last two. It is easy to see him getting dump offs and two-foot finishes after nice drives from Perry, Bell et al, but there is more to it than that.
First of all, yes, a quality big man should be able to finish around the rim. Ousmane is not a Shaq but he will look to dunk first. He is not an Embiid but he has a little flair. He does not have an array of post moves and finishes like Zach Simmons, but he scores with both hands. The aspect of his game that stood out most for me was his aggression. He played like he wanted the ball, and was going to score if he got anywhere near his spots. It is beautiful.
Ousmane has enough basketball skill — a pivot, a spin, a dribble, a slide, an up-and-under — that it enhances his physicality. The defender cannot wind up and swipe at him, or set up for a charge they’ve prepared for on film. They cannot take him out of the game by simply denying him one spot. He moves, he screens well, and he attacks the rim with aggression. He was a force and has been great for NT this year.
- 12 steals at one point. Gah dang. I knew it was a ton but geez.
- Ousmane and Scott got beat by the UTEP roll man because they didn’t tag him early. They were yelled at and coached up following this.
- Tylor Perry had a nice game that did not involve scoring. He ran the pick and roll and got into the lane a bunch. He also had some assist-misses, where his layup went off and Ousmane got the bucket. Those are huge and should be counted as assists. I’ve always thought so.
- Bieniemy’s midrange game was smooth for a bit. Then he got shut down.
- NT’s defense-to-offense game is not deadly, but they got some good looks off of it.
- Scott, by contrast, had an easy opportunity that Ousmane would finish and he missed because he tried some acrobatics. They have different statures so it makes sense, but attacking with a little more authority is better than not.
- NT might fall into a trap of over-passing. Perry had a look at about the 13:50 mark from a drive by Bell, but passed it up. NT ended up with a McBride three but still. Open is open and that was open.
- Scott, again, did not roll hard and was subbed out immediately afterward. He missed a pass right to him.
- Thomas Bell had a smooth 18 point game with finishes, drives, post-ups and the whole deal. Such a good player
- I’m too old to care about Post Malone but these commercials aren’t going to make me want to listen or buy this drink either.
What it all MEANS
Nothing. Without a ring.
NT is top of the league and then take on Rice this weekend, before continuing with conference play next Thursday at FAU, and then Saturday at UAB. Rice can beat you, and they are always tough with that style of play. I watched them much closer last year and thought they would have been maybe a 3/4 seed in last year’s east division. FAU is good now, apparently, and UAB is the only squad to beat the good guys in league play (in Denton!).
After that, there is a game vs Tech in Denton that should decide things. Another round with USM, UTSA, UTEP fills it all out. Those are trap games. NT is better than those three.
A big thing about this site is setting realistic expectations. We didn’t think NT would be challenging for the best seed in the league, but they are. We didn’t think they would beat Tech on the road — but they did. Everyone involved can be proud of the accomplishments thus far, but competing seriously in this league means getting or challenging for a berth in the quarters against the top of this league and putting in a good-to-great effort. We saw the absolute best from this team (tourney run) after some of the worst (back to back losses to UAB at home).
NT is in a great spot.