Game: (3W) North Texas vs (1E) WKU at 8pm central CBS Sports Network
Last season, I was driving to a wedding in Mississippi, blogging some thoughts about the pending uncertainty going into the second round of the Conference USA tournament in which NT would be taking on FAU 1. The reports from Italy about the devastating effects of the Coronavirus were making me nervous and a little concerned. Real Work was emailing me with tentative in-flight plans to split the workforce into A/B teams and rotate work from home before revising that to just be permanent. Then the league cancelled the tournament.
Count me among those who wanted to see that special North Texas team get a chance to make a run in the conference tournament, and challenge for the NCAAs. Last year marked ten years since NT had last won a conference tournament. Let us pause and rewatch Josh White hit the game-winner:
Everything was lining up for a special season. There is a little bit of a feeling of unfinished business around the team but Grant McCasland cut that short in the Stadium broadcast after the ODU game: “Its more about appreciating what we have in the moment than anything we lost”.
That, as a philosophy, is good and perhaps just as equally motivating. Hamlet and company can be proud of their regular season title while also appreciating the chance they have to win a conference tournament.
Johnny Jones coached the Josh White teams to two more Sun Belt title appearances — three in three! — and one was lost on a heartbreaking three, while the other was to this WKU program. I wrote after that one
In a rebuilding year, this team achieved what a senior-laden, former SBC championship caliber team did. This SBC title game is our rightful place in this world, now. I said it last year and it is still, true. Getting there is a Should, winning is the Challenge.
This league is a little different than the Sun Belt but North Texas was the number one seed in last year’s tournament and reached the title game in this year’s. Top-four seeds are the should in the McCasland years, and winning in the tournament is the challenge. Semifinal appearances can be the standard, ladies and gentleman.
North Texas won 54-48 despite shooting 3 of 17 from three and 39% overall. The defense from both sides was formidable and it felt like a classic playoff/tournament battle. These squads played twice in the regular season and there were no surprises. NT was ready for big man Kenneth Lofton after he abused NT in the first game. They doubled him strategically in the second game (NT win) and clogged the lane, choking his space in this one. That was the postgame answer from McCasland on CBSSN, “We defended as a team, digging, helping, scrapping” and will need to be the plan vs Charles Bassey. WKU’s big man can step out and shoot it (2 of 4 from three vs UAB) and is a defensive monster inside. More on WKU in a bit.
The ingredients for a win were the same as the previous night vs ODU:
- Javion Hamlet had to be clutch — he scored 18 and 14 of those came in the second half. Often he would be the option to save an otherwise janky NT possession and would make something of nothing.
- Thomas Bell shooting with confidence. I highlight him because he has the tendency to hesitate, then drive slowly and unsurely into the teeth of the defense when he is not playing well (vs UAB). He shot 0 of 4 from three but he took the shots with confidence. Similarly, Reese (0 of 5) and McBride (3 of 6). Dr3z’s threes were clutch (end of half, 4:08 mark that pushed a 2 point lead to 5).
- Zach Simmons keeping turnovers down — The best version of ZS is when he makes quick decisions and goes right into his arsenal of post moves. The worst version is when he waits too long, and ends the possession with a bad pass out of a double team. He only had one turnover in this one, scored ten, and was great defending Lofton.
- Limit offensive rebounds — Tech is big and physical and a lot of energy can be expended to defend the first shot, only for the follow up put back to be easy. NT allowed 14 offensive board but only 14 second chance points.
This game was a grind and a five point lead felt like 15. The biggest plays of the first half were both of McBride’s threes, as they ended a long NT scoring drought and put NT up one (9-8 at 13:27), and the second put NT up at the half (24-22, :08). There was a lot of feeling out. NT rested Hamlet at the 16 minute mark (partly why NT had that scoring drought) whereas they did not do that vs ODU.
Tech tried to establish Isaiah Crawford, their game-changer, a bit but Thomas Bell locked him up all game. He was held to 9 points. He had dominated the first matchup but Bell has took the challenge well the last two meetings. NT clogged his driving space and he was held to just 9 points.
In the second half, NT came out hot, pushed the lead to as many as eight points twice. Tech clawed back with free throws and tough buckets by Lofton and free throws from Pemberton.
Two sequences defined the game. The first came at the 10 minute mark when Kalob Ledoux missed two threes on the same possession. NT was holding on to a three point lead at the time and escaped. They stole the ball from Crawford (again, clogging the lane) and Mykell Robinson got a lob to push the lead to five.
The second sequence came with under-two to play. Tech ran their Horns set where Lofton looks for a cut from his point guard. Amorie Archibald caught the ball under the rim and missed a make-able layup. After Hamlet missed a driving layup (after dribbling out 20+ seconds) Lofton led the break, passed to Crawford who lobbed for both Lofton and Pemberton?? Tech missed and NT preserved the 7 point lead.
NT would miss a three the next possession but they used a minute’s worth of time and did not lose any bit of their lead even though Tech had great looks. In the final minute NT was up six and survived a little run from Pemberton (two free throws, a three, and an almost made three that would have made the lead one with :08)
NT shot 4 of 6 from the line downs the stretch and NT survived a mini-scare.
The cliché about “finding a way to win” is one because it is a truism. Good teams usually have multiple ways to win because that is what makes a team good. North Texas made their threes vs ODU but had to rely on their defense in this one.
Prepare for WKU
We previewed this matchup a little bit when it was scheduled for the regular season. These teams last met in a conference final in 2012 in the Sun Belt. Two seasons ago NT was eliminated by WKU in Frisco. The day after I saw Zach Simmons and Ryan Woolridge limping back to the arena to pick up some stuff, wrapped up and not looking like they could play another game.
Last season the WKU guys had hot sports opinions about NT cutting down the nets, and something about “doing it in the tournament”. Now is the chance. Last season’s regulars season “pod” matchup saw Taveion Hollingsworth miss two clutch free throws and Javion Hamlet get clutch buckets on the way to an OT win for NT.
WKU has been the standard of this conference and the Sun Belt for NT. There is plenty of sports hate for NT fans to muster against the Hilltoppers.
The ingredients for win in this one are similar:
- Javion Hamlet clutch buckets.
- TB+company shooting with confidence.
- Zach Simmons holding his own vs Bassey. Limit turnovers, limit frustration when Bassey throws a shot into the bleachers.
- Defend the shooters. WKU’s Frampton, Hollingsworth, even Josh Anderson can all shoot if left open.
It will be much harder for Hamlet to get inside and dominate the paint vs Bassey. First he blocks a shot. Then you start thinking about him blocking that shot and so you take a compromised shot and even though he did not block it, he has changed your shot and now you have missed. Then you start second-guessing your drives and launch contested shots from distance. That is how he changes the game.
Here is WKU’s offense, in list form:
- Look to see if Charles Bassey is underneath the rim. If so, give him the ball and run back down on defense.
- Look for Bassey on the high post, where he can shoot it (2 of 4 from three yesterday)
- Look for Hollingsworth to create off the dribble
- Luke Frampton for three, since you are defending Bassey with two people.
- Josh Anderson cutting
- Davyion McKnight, freshman sensation, willing to take shots any time and any place.
WKU’s weakness is that they can sometimes be too clever, not find enough shooting, and sometimes the willingness of a McKnight to take a shot means that Taveion Hollingsworth does not get a look that he should be getting.
NT will be playing the fourth game in four days, while WKU is on their third in three. NT likes to grind out possessions and that means a heavy per-game load for Javion Hamlet. He is such a key player that NT’s offense just does not work without him at the controls. If he cannot sustain his pace this will be all over.
WKU has Hollingsworth and McKnight to do a lot of the same things on that side, by comparison.
NT needs Mardrez McBride to continue lighting it up from three. He made all three and as we mentioned, they were all clutch. Maybe NT had tired legs and they just were not going to fall for them, or maybe NT was saving up that shooting fortune for the title game (I’m clearly joking here) but whatever the case this is where NT needs shooters to shoot.
Charles Bassey is a monster inside and that means points in the paint are not a guaranteed. Hamlet has not had to face a shot blocker of his caliber in this league and the last time NT looked uncomfortable on offense it was against UAB’s zone. NT started pump faking wide open looks and things fell apart. Hamlet can get buckets against just about every team in this league but this will be his greatest challenge.
If he does, he goes right to the Josh White level. A regular season title and a conference tournament championship is a free pass for life in Denton, America.
Thomas Bell is an x-factor as usual because of his versatility. He didn’t score from three yesterday but he was vital in locking up Isaiah Crawford. When Crawford did score, it was with great difficulty. Nothing came easy. Look for Bell to guard Hollingsworth in spots but mostly help off of Carson Williams.
NT is slight across the board but that is the McCasland modus operandi. They are undersized but usually play tougher and rely on athleticism. Kenpom likes NT in this one (slightly) but NT’s efficiency comes in large part from the ability of Hamlet to get into the paint and wreak havoc. Charles Bassey will be lurking. Hamlet will be looking for Simmons/Ousmane/Robinson in the dunker spot and they absolutely have to come ready to score. Zach Simmons is an NT favorite and he will need to score like he is capable.
This is so tough for big guys to master.
NT has the talent to win this game. WKU is better talented overall, but NT is a really good team. Wear green. Be loud (socially distanced, and safely) and root for your squad.
It is a long drive and the minivan we rented provided lots of space for me to write comfortably. ↩