Last year North Texas beat WKU at home to win the regular season title. The teams were in the CUSA pod play group and the win in overtime locked up the best record for the Mean Green. Leading up to that game there was a little bit of a chip on NT’s shoulder, as the the NT basketball program had long been second to WKU in the sport going back to the Sun Belt.
Getting a huge win — and avenging the earlier road loss — was psychologically important. NT had slayed the red blob in a meaningful game. After the conference tournament was cancelled the WKU squad were complaining on twitter than UNT was over-celebrating a title while not having a tournament victory to make it legit. No one has forgotten about that.
There is an argument to be made that this NT team has more talent top-to-bottom, even if Hamlet has not played to his 2020 level. Also indisputable is that Charles Bassey is back healthy for WKU. He was missing with a leg injury last season, and it is hard to imagine NT getting so many clean looks at the rim late in that game with Bassey looming large inside.
Both games are in Denton, which is a huge lift.
After that, NT has Marshall in WV. The Herd like to run up and down (as usual) and Taevion Kinsey is in the player of the year conversation (if that conversation were not dominated by Bassey). There are a lot of reasons to think Marshall is something like a paper tiger, but they have veteran talent, a good coach, and have shown a willingness to play defense at times.
Finally, UAB comes to Denton. They previously were the number one squad in the CR rankings, and had just the one conference loss (blowout to CLT) before dropping two to Louisiana Tech. There is a strong suspicion that the Blazers are not very good, and just have had a soft schedule with which to pad their stats. It is true they had the worst conference strength of schedule rating (according to Kenpom) going into the Tech game and that is telling.
Still, the Blazers have talent and now that they know the level that is required in this league, they should be better prepared to play North Texas.
Speaking of schedule strength, NT is at 8th in the league (again, according to Kenpom). That we have seen NT compete well against good non-conference opposition lets us think highly of the Mean Green without worrying too much. There is little question that NT can compete with the top tier of the league, but if they can beat them is a little more difficult. Tech is good and NT split. That told us a lot about this squad.
WKU is athletic (like Tech) and has good interior defense and size. NT should be better prepared, but again everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Bassey is not Lofton. Marshall is a unique team with bouncy athleticism and UAB has talent, likes to run, and wants to play defense.
The stretch run is tough, and that means it will be entertaining. The plan is for this program to compete regularly with the best the nation has to offer and the first step is beating the best the league has.
If you need a refresher, NT went on an 8-1 run to tie it. WKU’s Hollingsworth missed two free throws with 5.6 seconds left. NT pulled away in OT thanks to some clutch assists (on lobs) from Hamlet to Bell and Reese ↩