Its game day. The Mean Green play host to UAB, a very different team than the one defeated in Birmingham last month, but one that is a more like the team the season previews all loved. Jelly Walker should be back, and he is on a mission.
North Texas is playing for seeding in the league tournament at this point. The team is playing well again, and all conversations about an at-large bid are stopped. That is not a failure or a problem, it is simply a realization that NT is paying around expectation level. This team was supposed to be good and is, but there are some questions that haven’t been answered. Lineups that have not been tested, and mettle yet to be shown. This is a good time to show it. UAB is out for revenge, having played poorly in January and are looking to reassert — for themselves really — their place in the league. The Blazers, like NT, are playing for the 2nd seed. FAU has a two-game head-to-head advantage over North Texas, but UAB split that series, and ended FAU’s win-steak in spectacular blowout-fashion.
Tonight, they will be looking to do more of the same. That’s how hoops goes. It is a rhythm game and on any night any team can jump up and win, leaving the other team wondering what-could-have been. A series of games usually proves out who is the better team, and this will go a long way towards that determination. Of course the one that really matters is in March, but a win tonight and the confidence will be flowing.
Some Stuff To Consider
UAB’s offense is just about as good as NT’s, if you look at kenpom metrics. Both play efficient basketball, tied at 106.2 efficiency behind FAU’s ~108. Both team’s play good defense, with NT’s being rated just slightly higher than the Blazers. NT scores the ball well from most places except from the free throw line and turns the ball over a bit too much. UAB is inefficient inside the three point line, and can start to struggle from the line and is streaky from distance. Jelly Walker can make them from anywhere and will shoot about ten of them, some of them off-balance. He *can* make those, so it remains dangerous.
The Blazers still boast a tough front-court, and will get blocks from the weak side on help. They lack a on-ball shut-down guy, but so does NT. Well, Rubin Jones can lock down a guy, but they are missing a JJ Murray-type dude. The Blazers have length but get a little loose when it comes to defensive intensity. They will trap you in the half-court, and like to zone you to get run-outs. Like any plan, it looks great until it doesn’t work. North Texas has looked poor vs the zone sometimes (MTSU, UAB) but has done a good job attacking it overall. Mac said Abou Ousmane is the key for NT’s press-break, and that should continue tonight.
NT relies on Ousmane for a lot, and his ability to stay on the floor (read: out of foul trouble) will be key. UAB’s Trey Jemison is a handful, with some Dwight Howard shoulders out there. He will score around the basket on put-backs and the occasional jump-hook, but can be stymied by good, coordinated defense.
The main keys are Jelly Walker and Eric Gaines, who boast the kind of game-changing speed that will upend a lot of game-plans. NT has dealt with both individually, but this is the first time they will face them together. Both are lightning quick, and turnover prone, but the shooting combined with finishing means it stretches the entire defense and with help coming, opens up the lane for Buffen, Jemison, and others to get easy put-backs.
North Texas will ask Tylor Perry to get buckets on step-backs, catch-and-shoots, and anywhere else he can as usual. Kai Huntsberry has shown his post-up game and might get a few moments again in this one. He has the size to shoot over a lot of guards but the strength to get position as well. Rubin Jones and Aaron Scott are keys to every game. They have the athleticism that help NT compete with anyone, and their ability to defend and then get out and run or score on slashes in the half-court are incredibly important.
Beyond that the shooters have got to shoot. That means Jayden Martinez, mostly, as he’s at .393 from three, but also Kai, Tyree Eady, and Matt Stone. Not everyone is shooting career bests from distance, but they can make those shots and should shoot with confidence when they appear. Mostly, it is about attacking. Leaving an Eady open means he has an opportunity to score, and that could mean taking a stand-still shot, or attacking on the catch. The key is to remain aggressive.
NT is about a -3 point favorite, which is basically the home points. That sounds about right. When either of these teams are playing well they are very hard to beat. When either of these teams are struggling, they are still very hard to beat. I imagine we will see moments where both teams look like they are about to run away with this thing. Look for the classic NT slow-down game and for a Perry big run at about the 5-minute mark. That has been the indicator time — if NT will win or lose they will make that run in that spot.