It is tempting to simply read Kenpom stats at the reader when doing basketball analysis. That kind of thing is easy to write, but awful to read. North Texas went into Hattiesburg against a young, talented USM squad and won. North Texas did not play well — there were mistakes, rotation misses, and the offense was effective but not particularly fun to watch — but got the job done.
I will not blame you for being worried about the Golden Eagles’ 10-point lead to start. They shot well and it is the kind of thing that upsets are built on. However, NT was grinding away and there was way too much time to demonstrate the real superior team. They did so. I think NT’s win probability was still in the 70s when they were down 10 and it felt that way.
Aaron Scott got a lot of cleanup buckets that doubled as demoralizers for Southern Miss. Thomas Bell only had nine points but did the Bell stuff well and was timely with it. Tylor Perry was out for the game, which is the kind of thing that can throw off the whole team if they let it. They did not let it. USM is not good, and really NT should beat them 9 of 10 times at full strength. They handled business when it could possibly be rough and we can be happy.
This weekend’s game vs La Tech is even more important however. Tech is third behind NT in the standings, but is at home and favored to win. They have the best defense (by efficiency) in the league. They have the fourth best offense in the league. The good news? NT has the most efficient offense and the 5th best defense. It is a great matchup.
Last year NT won two of the three, including the biggest game in the conference tournament. Mitigating factor? All there were in the DFW area. This is the first time NT has been in Ruston since Jan 18, 2020, which took a miracle drive and floater to win. Tech has Kenneth Lofton, Jr, who is morphing into an even better monster than he was last year. Missing is Isaiah Crawford, who is out for the year with an injury, but Lofton’s growth and the presence of Cobe Williams will be an issue. Perry should be back (hopefully).
NT is playing for the inside lane in the race for the top two seeds in the division. UAB has beaten both of these squads and is likely going to be the top seed, or at least one of the two.
A quick refresher: The League will seed the team 1-7, with the top two seeds receiving byes into the quarter finals. Last year NT finished third, but managed to beat Middle (West 6th seed), ODU (East 2nd seed), Tech (West 1st), and WKU (East 1st) for the title. That is tough. The goal is to get a top two seed so NT can start on Thursday instead of Tuesday or Wednesday. Three of the four top seeds made the semifinals. NT was the lone ‘outsider’.
As it stands, Middle and Charlotte would be E1 and E2, with FAU, ODU, WKU, FIU, and Marshall rounding things out. UAB, NT are W1 and W2, with Tech, UTEP, Rice, USM, and UTSA the rest of the way.
If we started the tournament today it would look something like this:
Tuesday: USM vs UTSA, FIU vs Marshall
Wednesday: UTEP vs WKU, ODU vs Rice, FAU vs USM/UTSA, Tech vs FIU/Marshall
Thursday: Middle vs ODU/WKU, NT vs FAU/USM/UTSA, Charlotte vs UTEP/WKU/ODU, UAB vs UTEP/WKU
Friday: So on,
Saturday: So so forth.
All told, NT is in a good spot. UAB slipped up once, but they are very good and probably matchup up very well with NT. Every competitor wants to take on the best, sure, but it is probably best if NT avoids UAB until the last possible moment — which could be the final! — I like how the matchups look against the rest of the league. (That isn’t to say any one of the “others” cannot beat NT in a game, but simply that I like our chances.)
Anyway, this is a big matchup for the above reasons. It is a test game, and will let us know how good NT is while also preparing the team for when it absolutely maters. Winning and losing has big consequences but they can be overcome and actually improved upon later.