North Texas basketball won the CBI Tournament Final 88-77 in a game that meant very little nationally, but very much to the program.
Cheap jokes were made, but the uninformed only ever have surface level observations. To truly understand a moment one has to pay attention to the details.
The CBI is not prestigious, but North Texas basketball was not playing for prestige. It was playing for respect, and for themselves, and for the fans, and mostly again for themselves.
The CBI need not be covered like the NCAA tournament, but it is silly to think that the effort and competition were somehow less intense or less meaningful.
Tonight, was memorable.
Every so often in the life of a program there is a very special game that sticks in the collective minds of the fans. The Johnny Jones era of Mean Green ball had the Texas Tech victory game in which North Texas beat a Big 12 team. It was not quite a culmination of of things, but it stood out as a glimmer of what the program could be while also validating the success of previous campaigns. NT had won 20 games four straight years (and would go on to win 20 again in that 2010-2011 season) with two NCAA Tournament appearances in that time.
Beating Tech during the season was supposed to kick off the next era.
As far as collegiate basketball venues go, the Pit is decent. The greatest venues are great not because of sight lines, but because of memories.
The Tech game was a highlight but supposed to be supplanted by new and better memories. Tony Mitchell, Chris Jones, and Jordan Williams were supposed to carry the program to new and higher heights. Instead, well, you know what happened. North Texas followed six straight winning seasons (including five straight 20+ win seasons) with four losing seasons and one .500 year.
This was never about the CBI. This was always about returning the program to the path it was on from 2001-2012. The fans and supporters that endured the grind from an underperforming afterthought to a Tournament-bound, and consistent league contender were ready for the next step.
Winning the CBI means that basketball is back.
To know that you had to be paying attention.
North Texas beat a good team, let us acknowledge that here, but one that was at a disadvantage against NT. Frankie Ferrari is good, and has turned the Dons into a 20-game winner, with designs on returning the program to its previously lofty heights himself.
The Dons made 12 threes, on 37.5% shooting and 42% in the second period. Frankie the former Uber man made all five of his threes in the second half and fifteen of his nineteen in the second. USF made a nice little run to make things interesting but NT was able to put them away fairly easily.
North Texas was always the better team but San Francisco is the better executing squad. Tonight, the talent of NT and the improved offensive and defensive execution won the day. Roosevelt Smart had 25 in 39 minutes, wreaking havoc on the USF defensive plan, and Ryan Woolridge controlled the game.
AJ Lawson has struggled to find a consistent rhythm all season but looked like the slashing scorer NT needed. He had 12 huge points including 10 in the second half on 3/3 shooting and 4/6 from the line.
In one four-minute stretch he had an assist, two jumpers and a layup.
USF survived off second-chance points even without JR forward Matthew McCarthy, putting up 18 to NT’s 4. They also got points off of NT turnovers — scoring 19.
In the end, though, it was NT’s superior ability to get to the rim and really, wherever they wanted that was the difference. The Mean Green shot better — 40% from deep — in this one and that helped. In this series North Texas has won all but two halves — the first in game one and the final in this one, in which they simply tied at 50.
What It Means
North Texas basketball is back. Most people felt like Grant McCasland woud be able to right the ship. Few expected another 20-win season from the man who got Arky St to that number last season. Yet, here we are. NT has won 20 games for the first time since that aforementioned season wherein they beat Tech in the Pit.
The good feelings and new memories will carry over into the summer and build up the good will for the next season. It helps that the CBI has branded itself as the launching pad for NCAA tournament success. Things are looking up for this program, as you no doubt have seen written in this space this season. The league has had one of the better seasons in all of college basketball and North Texas competed well within it.
WKU, ODU, and Middle Tennessee all lost quality players. Marshall may lose more. The offseason will bring new faces into all of the league’s 14 programs, but North Texas has the one of the more intriguing returning squads of them all.
All of last offseason NT was selling hope and now the ticket sellers and outreach staff can sell results. That is big.
But you knew that because you, unlike some others, were paying attention to the details.