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Javion Goes Ham-let: NT 64 ODU 47

NT has wrapped up the first spot in CUSA pod play, where the league is divided up into pods to boost the strength of schedule for its best teams. NT finished the scripted portion of the year 12-2 and tops in the league.

The two losses were against talented WKU, who are beating UTSA right now and should finish in 2nd at 11-3, and Rice, the struggling but rebuilding Owls. There was also the epic buzzer-beater against Tech.

NT beating ODU eliminates the Monarchs from the top pod, and that means we will see WKU, Tech, Charlotte, and FIU.

Hamlet had 27 in this one, as NT cruised from start to finish. The ODU trademark man-to-man defense was seemingly left on the plane, and NT got good open looks from one or two passes and shot well. While ODU made a couple of runs here and there, there was nothing special to speak of and the NT defense was solid all afternoon.

The Mean Green are playing great ball right now and Javion Hamlet is the reason. He is in all the conversations for player of the year in the league and with good reason. His shooting from three (.385) and ability to get into the paint for little runners and hooks is a big reason why NT is tops in the league in offensive efficiency.

This season is the third straight impressive showing for head coach Grant McCasland. Last year NT started strongly but faltered around this time when injuries and stagnant play hindered the progress. This time NT is healthy heading into the most important stretch of the season: The Bonus Play + conference tournament.

North Texas is playing the most complete basketball in the league right now, but will be challenged by the likes of WKU in pod play. Beyond that, the league tournament is a crapshoot where one poor game can end your season quickly and cruelly.

It is great to see good basketball in Denton again. Much has been made of the last time NT saw the tournament — about a decade ago — and it was fitting that they honored the last team to make the trip. This blog used to write that getting to the tournament final is the expectation. It has been a long time coming to get back to even thinking that it is possible

Full credit to the staff and especially the players for an incredible season so far.

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Basketball

MBB: Let’s Talk About Execution

The Mean Green are playing really well, but you may have read or seen some criticism here or elsewhere about the team. While the team has been winning, it has sometimes been closer than we would have liked. They play hard and well, even against really tough competition. However McCasland has had trouble getting his guys to get quality shots late in the game when the pressure is most intense.

Most basketball these days uses on-ball screens and relies on the ability to get your best players the ball when the clock is ticking down. Before that, many teams rely on old staples and new wrinkles to get into sets that will create good shots and some rhythm for their team.

North Texas runs a variation on the 4-1 out motion, with one big man surrounded by four players on the outside of the court along the three-point line. There are many ways to run this and many ways to teach it. Jay Wright’s Villanova probably runs the version you have seen run most effectively on the national stage. At its best it spreads the court, creating space for a big man to get buckets, while getting good spacing for open perimeter shots.

McCasland’s third year sees him with a team stocked with shooters like Umoja Gibson (he leads the league in 3pt% and is second in made threes), James Reese, Javion Hamlet, DJ Draper, and Roosevelt Smart. So far, NT has been able to create lots of shots for those guys and that is an indicator that 1) they are talented and 2) they can run the offense well enough to generate good stuff.

The team is first in the conference in offensive efficiency according to kenpom and is second in that measure according to sports-reference.com. There is a lot to like. Why, then, did the team look so poor against Louisiana Tech throughout the later portion of the second half? A good amount of credit goes to Tech, who defended well and whose long and rangy defenders made it tough to do anything.

We took a look at each of the possessions and we’ll break them down here. A couple of themes emerge and they are these: NT has good ideas but some poor execution. They have some weaknesses that should improve with more time in the system and at this level. Zach Simmons is good.

0-James Reese
1-Umoja Gibson
3-Javion Hamlet
4-Jalen Jackson
13- Thomas Bell
24-Zach Simmons

Situation: NT 43-41 9:05
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is in a the standard 4-1 look, with Hamlet in the “slot” looking to start the action. There are a number of different ways to start a given play within the offense, and a ball screen is one of them. It can come ad-hoc or via call. McCasland is yelling instructions frustratedly. Here, Zach Simmons comes high to set a screen in the “slot” for Hamlet. Javion uses it poorly, and this ends up a turnover. When we talk about “poor” ball handling this is one of those things. Everyone on the team is D-1 caliber, but there are levels to this thing even in that category.

We want to see Hamlet use this screen better, going shoulder-to-shoulder and if that fails, to not lose the ball. Also, I believe there should be an “exchange” when there is an action on the ball. The away guards should exchange places to occupy the defenders.

Situation: NT 43-44 8:07
Personnel: 13-23-4-3-0

Again the standard look and Deng Geu sets a “drag” screen for Hamlet to start the action. It’s a screen from the big on the ball to begin some early action while the defense is not yet set. This was popularized by the SSOL Suns and is all over the NBA and NCAA now. Geu slips and rolls to the rim as he sees Tech start to trap — this is something they did throughout the second half and it caused lots of havoc. The pass goes to James Reese on the wing, who should have shot this ball on the catch. One teaching point in this offense is that a player will never be more open than when he first catches the ball. Reese is one of our better shooters and we want this shot. Instead, he tries to take advantage of Geu being “unguarded” but that goes nowhere. In his defense, Tech’s Ledoux is long and might have bothered the look. Geu is not the post player that Simmons is, even though he is much more bouncy. The kickout pass is tipped.

Situation: NT 43-44 — out of bounds play
Personnel: 13-23-0-1-3

NT runs a set to get a ball screen on the left side of the court. This action is something like Motion Weak in the Spurs/NBA playbook, with Gibson setting a screen for the big man to get him a touch in the post. Geu sprints past the spot to set a screen for Hamlet. He rejects the screen and goes baseline where he is doubled. Geu and Thomas Bell both dive for the pass — a no-no from Bell — and the ball is lost on a bad catch. Catching passes is ball handling. When we complain a bit about handling — this is also what we mean.

Situation: NT 43-46 7:11
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

We start with a ball screen from Geu, but set differently. Here is in a “flat” look, but not quite. A good “flat” screen is parallel to the half-court line. He is angled a bit here, which makes me think he was just setting a screen. Hamlet sends a wing pass to Reese after rejecting the screen from Geu. Reese looks inside to the rolling Geu but doesn’t pass it.

A couple things about this: 1) When Geu rolls or slips, Reese should “lift” quicker and move in the same motion as the roll. This helps give Hamlet a better pass and 2) This entry pass should be attempted. It wasn’t, and that messed up the rest of the action.

The ball is reversed — a “slot” to “slot” pass — and there should either be an exchange from the wing players (Bell and Gibson) or a pin down for Geu by Bell. NT was running the same set to get Bell to screen for Geu but instead he kind of floated a bit because Geu had his man sealed off for the post up.

Because the backside players did not move much the defense is able to lock on the ball. As it is reversed to Gibson, the wing players could do the action again — screen or exchange. They do not and even though Geu does a good job showing for the entry pass, there is no easy pass for Hamlet to make, because Bell’s man is digging. Bell clears out by running the baseline, opening things for another entry attempt. Hamlet rejects the screen and drives to the baseline, he has a pocket pass available to Geu but instead pulls it back out to Reese who has moved to fill the open space. He shoots a step-back three when the ball is reversed back to him. The one he had to start the previous possession was much better than this look.

NT is running the play to get guys as open as Geu was early, but did not find him. That happens even in good offenses, but that should not derail the rest of the play. The action should continue in a nice flow with players reading and reacting to the defense. Here, they kind of break down after the first option is taken away (or ignored, really). They did flow into a ball-screen — a hallmark of the modern college game — but that was not really executed at a high level. We would love to see that pocket pass made to Geu to allow him to make a play or score over the smallish Bracey “guarding” the paint.

Situation: NT 43-46 6:29
Personnel: 3-0-24-13-1

We see the same action. Hamlet passes to the wing (Reese) and then cuts through to the other side. Gibson sets the same pin down for the C, in this case Zach Simmons but instead of reversing the ball over to get him on the right block, he seals while Bell throws it back to Reese and Reese gives him the ball. Bucket. This is a great little counter to the hedging that Tech was doing.

Situation: NT 45-46 5:46
Personnel: 3-13-1-24-0

North Texas gets in a “horns” look, with two guys at the corners of the free throw line. Hamlet initiates the action by passing to Simmons, which is followed by a “split screen” where Hamlet and Bell run and set a little screen for each other. This is a staple of the Princeton offense and more recently, the Golden State Warriors’. The bass goes to Bell, and Gibson sets a screen for Simmons to get him to the post.

This action is all set up to get Zach a post touch. You might notice that everyone essentially ends up where they have the past few possessions. The pass out to Hamlet is hard to make for Bell because of the ball denial from Tech — again, let’s credit Tech here — and when Hamlet gets the ball he is uncomfortable making the entry pass to Simmons. The ball is reversed, but Simmons wants it back at Hamlet to get another chance. When he gets it, he scores. Good set, execution is at about a C+, but our best player got a great look and scored.

You will notice that Bell and Gibson exchange after the pass and Bell tries to exchange with Reese, even though they are sort of arguing about it. There are a lot of ways to get player movement but exchanging positions is a great way to do it simply and make the defense look away from the ball. Even though Bell is exchanging somewhat hesitantly, it forces Bracey (25) to turn his head when the ball is reversed. The same thing happens to Archibald (3) as the ball moves from Gibson to Hamlet to get a better angle on the entry pass. Instead of Archibald seeing the ball and moving to be in position to double up on the post, he reacts after Simmons has already received the ball and is making a move. Good player movement creates space for teammates.

Situation: NT 47-46 4:45
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Thomas Bell sets a “flat” screen for Hamlet, something that is a staple of the 4-1 motion, especially when the opposition is pressuring the ball high. This is more of a 1-4 high look, that is typical of late-game possessions. We have basic screen-roll, 2-man game and Hamlet uses the screen well. We see that the simple act of going shoulder-to-shoulder with his screener opens up the middle of the floor and the pass to Bell, who does a great job of attacking the closeout and getting fouled. He made both.

Another thing to notice is Gibson’s “lift” action on the left side. As Thomas begins to roll, that triggers the “lift” from Gibson who comes up from his corner spot to create space for the kickout pass. Because Bell pops out behind the arc, Gibson is crowding him a bit for a second, but it works out. You can see Ledoux (5) lose track of his man Gibson. He realizes he has to step up and that means he has to abandon his previously great position. Instead of being in place to stop the drive, he vacates the area (rightly) to guard Mo. Again, good player movement creates space.

Situation: NT 49-48 4:01
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we see the issue with only being familiar with the first or the basic action. NT runs the standard motion actions. There is a pass to the wing, a cut away by the passer (Hamlet), Gibson sets the screen for Zach and there is a ball reversal to try to post him. Here, Tech knows the play is coming and they jump the pass and there is a turnover. Here we’d like to see a counter action. Maybe Zach sets a screen for Hamlet and he cuts through. The Spurs have a counter for their similar set.

Teams will scout the hell out of this team when there is time to prepare. NT needs to be able to get into secondary actions easily.

Situation: NT 49-48 3:42
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

This is a different set, likely owing to the fact that Tech was jumping on the other stuff so easily. Zach is giving a hand signal — “stack” — and NT gets the ball on the left side with a look to post Zach on the seal. He misses but this was a good look out of a solidly-executed set.

Reese gets the entry pass, but looks confused about the next thing to do. I would like to see a cut through here, but that could bring a double on Zach. Gibson is asking for an exchange and that would work just fine. On the opposite side, you can see Tech is not respecting the passing ability of our guys, nor the shooting ability of Thomas Bell. It would be nice for Bell to set a “flare” screen for Hamlet to get him an open three on the cross court pass from Simmons. This all results in a good look for Zach, though, so we cannot complain too much. He just missed.

Situation: NT 49-48 2:58
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we have an indicator of the work to be done. McCasland is screaming “thumb down”. It looks like NT wants to run a “continuity” set, which is essentially just a series of the same couple of actions: 1) a ball screen on one side, 2) a reversal to the big man into a ball screen on the other side. Typically this is run continuously until the defense makes a mistake or over-hedges on something.

NT There is confusion from everyone and mostly, the movements are slow. This can be run at a deliberate pace, but everything needs to be crisper — screens set solidly and the cuts sharper. Some teams use this to get into a set or just as a default action when the play breaks down. NT called it so it is a set to get into a ball screen.

All the motion gets Zach ready to set a ball screen for Hamlet, just like in the initial start of the previous sets earlier. The roll by Simmons triggers a “lift” action by Reese, where he pops up or “lifts” up from his original spot. The idea is to give Simmons space to roll and take away the defense’s help, as we saw with Gibson earlier. Tech does a great job of being active and tipping the pass. Jean (1) was tough all night. Having active hands is playing great defense and they do that here.

One note here — typically teams defend the “continuity” by dropping a guy in the center of the paint like Tech does here. He is sitting there but since NT does a good job of transitioning into the “regular” set, Thomas Bell is is wide open. Ledoux (5) is actually pointing to his teammate to pick Bell up, thinking he is communicating with him on the exchange by Gibson and Bell. This is an excellent example of how combining actions — flowing one into another — is a great way to take away the typical defensive tricks and plans that teams develop for a particular set. NT created two open looks and Hamlet was not wrong to look for Reese on the roll. The next level is recognizing who is open everywhere.

The deflection leads to a scramble and that leads to a kicked ball. NT runs an out-of-bounds play and NT runs something for Gibson to pop out and get a shot. You can see McCasland signal “zipper” on his tie. That’s typically the name for actions like this to get a shooter a look from the top of the key. Tech traps it hard — again, good stuff — and Mo attacks it and misses at the rim. Generally speaking, this is a good idea, but he is not going to make a living attacking the bucket.

We probably could use a better screen from Bell at the free throw line, as Gibson just needed a half-second longer and he could have let it fly. He does a good job finding something off the dribble, but we maybe would like to see a go-to action if they trap it like they did. Maybe Reese lifts and Bell continues to set a pin for Zach to get him a look inside. If Bell got big and called for the ball he would have drawn three players, and opened up a passing lane for both Reese and Hamlet.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:56
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is running the action to get Zach the ball in the post. The bench is screaming instructions to everyone. Mo does not quite know he is supposed to be on the other side of the floor. He moves to his spot right as the action is beginning, throwing off the timing a bit. It looks like they tried to get Zach on the fake pin-down counter again. Reese could have probably found him but did not let it go. There was no exchange on the ball reversal, which makes it harder to get Zach the ball. Archibald (3) stays lurking in the paint ready for it and NT is not making him pay with any action. When Bell throws it to the wing, he cuts through (standard action) and you can see that Archibald (3) cannot stay and ball-watch anymore.

Beyond that, NT is reluctant to run a pick-n-roll with Reese and Simmons, which would be a default action when the entry pass is not there. Instead they abandon that position and begin again up top with Hamlet and Simmons — the standard pairing. Hamlet is doubled, Jean (1) is harassing Hamlet and NT gets a bad shot from Reese.

This was a crucial situation and NT was playing great defense here. They let Tech off the hook by not getting a good look. The details are crucial. NT was playing hard and that likely contributed to the somewhat slow offensive actions here. Zach was doing a great job battling for good positions but was not getting rewarded for it.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:14
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

After a couple of poor possessions, NT runs a set to distract Tech and get Zach in a two-man game with Hamlet up top. There are a series of screens to get Zach to sprint up and screen for Hamlet. Jean (1) is hounding Hamlet and forces a turnover just as the play begins. Mac is furious at the call. Wasted possession. Most of that was fine, and we should give a lot of credit to the defense there. Jean was fantastic and really forced the turnover. NT could not get into what they wanted because of it.

Situation: NT 49-48 0:35
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

A couple things happen here. Jean (1) is again hounding Hamlet and that eats up time. By the time NT is into their set, the staff is screaming at Mo to come over. Reese is yelling at him, too. Zach sets the screen high, both Bell and Mo run to the same spot in slow motion, with a look like they are trying to figure out what is supposed to happen. Zach is trying to adapt by reading the play. Hamlet is doing the same. There is a time out to reset.

Again, credit Tech’s defense here for making it tough to get into the look. The thing to learn here is that good teams like Tech will make it difficult to run your favorite play. There has to be better execution here — to the level where it is second-nature.

Out of the timeout, NT runs the same zipper play for Gibson. There is a ball screen for Hamlet to get down hill as Mo “zips” up to get a look. This time Tech does not trap it, but Ledoux pops out to challenge it. It is a nice enough look.

After that, Hamlet got the winner all by himself.

The verdict? North Texas got Zach some good looks out of various sets but failed hard when it did not work. The goal of the offense is to get a quality look every time down the floor. While A lot of that was Tech reading the actions and taking the first and second options away. NT looks like they are still working through learning the sets. Instead of reacting to the defense, they are thinking too much.

Again, the team is getting buckets at an efficient rate, but the good teams they’ve faced this season have done a great job of shutting that down late, as we saw. Tech held NT scoreless for a long stretch. WKU did the same. Marshall was more unlucky than bad in that game. NT will face some good defensive teams that force the offense into their second and third actions and the league title will likely be determined by how well NT executes those in crunch time.

Right now, NT does not have a player that can just go get a bucket on his own steam. Mo tried to make a play but was stuffed. Zach needs a good entry pass. Hamlet made a play in the open court, but against a half-court set, he needs good spacing and a good screen and the awareness to use those screens effectively.

NT has made a lot of improvement and will continue to do so as the season progresses. Repetitions are needed and that will only come with games. Having lost some tough ones against good teams has helped NT win this one. Playing this tough team will help NT prepare for the next tough game.

NT is 6-1 in the league and is getting better because they have a lot of room to improve. That is exciting.

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North Texas Beats Tech 51-50 in Battle of CUSA Leaders

The Mean Green were ready for the moment in Ruston, jumping out to a big lead, with some crisp offense and their typically tough defense. This was typical of NT in conference play, where they have been at the top of the league in efficiency offensively and strong defensively even if slightly undersized.

The Bulldogs came in as a top-60 opponent, and this win is a feather in NT’s cap in a season that has seen McCasland’s group play some tough competition strong until the end. Even in the lone conference loss to super-talented WKU (although missing Bassey) they played tough until getting out-executed in the end.

This game saw something similar. NT withheld a surge from Tech and briefly lost their lead. NT went to Zach Simmons for some clutch buckets in the middle of the second half until Tech wised up and changed up their coverage to disallow easy entry passes to him.

After Jacolby Pemberton made a free throw to make it 49-48 North Texas with 4:09 left in the game, no one scored until Amorie Archibald’s layup over Zach Simmons with 5 seconds left in the contest. He was fouled but missed the free throw. NT inbounded and Javion Hamlet drove the length of the floor to get a floater off at the last possible instant — this was reviewed –and scored the winning bucket.

The review went on for ages, and there was no clear view on the broadcast that could say definitively either way. The Thomas Anderson Center scoreboard operator refused to adjust the score even after the referees announced the decision and NT came away winners.

Offensive Execution

North Texas struggled against the harassing Tech defense late, again, something that is commonly seen. North Texas had trouble running clean sets either through miscommunication — McCasland screaming the play to the ball handler or yelling instructions to a given player on his intended responsibility — poor passing, or just bad reads.

The fact that NT can run the offense crisply at times indicates this is just a familiarity problem. They can run their sets sharply when they know what to expect, but adjusting on the fly and reading the defense is still a work in progress.

North Texas got a big buckets from Gibson, Simmons and of course Hamlet when it counted and that is what it takes to win. Someone needs to make the buckets and everyone needs to play great defense.

Yes, The Defense

The defense was incredible, with Zach Simmons defending all over the floor. One reason teams do not like their big men going to challenge shots on the three point line is that that leaves no one to rebound inside. NT has played with smallish lineups for two seasons and still manages to get huge rebounds. NT defended and rebound. Unfortunately, the one time they blew a coverage — allowing Amorie Archibald to get middle on the screen-and-roll — was the biggest moment. Before that they forced Tech into tough looks and one-shot possessions for four clutch minutes.

In the end, NT is at 5-1 in league play after beating one of the toughest teams in this league. Charlotte was previously undefeated in conference play but dropped their game in Bowling Green this afternoon.

NT gets a day break before hosting Rice on Monday and then UTSA on Thursday.

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Basketball

MBB: Let’s Get Hopeful

Back in November we discussed this team and were less than enthused. Some of those concerns remain, like the fact that NT has no obvious closer or system to generate crunch-time buckets. Others have been addressed — the new guys are getting comfortable.

North Texas handled FIU handily to open conference play in Denton yesterday, and blew out FAU on this afternoon. Before that, the squad split the WKU/Marshall road trip but impressed enough to be frustrated at the WKU loss.

North Texas sits at 3-1 and KenPom has them favorites for most of the rest of the way. The team plays hard, gives good effort, and is well-coached.

Against the Herd, there was some good fortune that helped NT in the win column rather than excellent play. The good news is that NT puts itself in positions to win and be in those tough situations. The hope is that eventually the team learns and grows from being in that position so often.

Umoja Gibson is shooting 40% from three, on 101 attempts thus far and stretches the floor for the slashing of Hamlet, Bell, and opens space for Zach Simmons and Deng Geu, everyone’s favorite player.

NT is still not overly long or big, but they play tough, fight for every possession, and have shooters. It is a nice basketball team. The most exciting recent development was the play of Roosevelt Smart against FIU. Two seasons ago he was NT’s best offensive player but has lost that position these last two seasons.

North Texas will run into problems when it faces talented teams like WKU and UTEP, and will struggle against good defensive teams like ODU and Charlotte, but no one in this league is unbeatable.

Javion Hamlet and James Reese — two of those newcomers — were stars of Saturday’s win vs FAU. Last year, NT had a balanced scoring attack but was overly reliant on Ryan Woolridge getting inside the paint and Zach Simmons doing a one-man wrecking crew at center to initiate much of that action. This season the improvement of Geu and the others gives NT a little more variety in attack and Hamlet, Bell and others can all attack off the bounce or slash to get second-chance buckets.

NT played a tough schedule and competed well even if they did not put up wins. They’ve opened conference play on a great note, but they’ll face some challenges and we will see how much improvement they have made. March and the conference tournament is just two short months away and McCasland will want to build his team to play the best basketball right as the tournament starts.

That is everyone’s goal, sure, but playing good basketball in the conference season is how you make it easier on yourself in Frisco. Long term, we see the kind of program that Grant Mac wants to build in Denton. He won 20 at Arkansas State, but escaped that situation as soon as he was able. He won 20 in Denton, and followed that up with a good team with some obvious flaws.

This season is his third in Denton and we know the style he wants to play and the kind of guys he wants to coach. In short, this season can possibly result in some championship hardware and the future is bright.

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Basketball

NT Men’s Basketball Is Off To A Slightly Rough Start

It is almost turkey time and you will be busy travelling or hosting family, or making food or fighting people at the store on black friday.

You might have forgotten the basketball season has started already. Let us recap the season thus far and mixing in a look ahead at the schedule.

The season thus far:

North Texas beat an overmatched squad to start the season, then hung tough with #25 VCU before losing by three points. They followed that with an ugly loss at Arkansas and then lost as favorites against Eastern Michigan at home.

The beat North Carolina A&T by 20, and head to Jamaica for the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic. There, they’ll face Rhode Island and Utah State. Both of those games will be on CBS Sports Network.

Sitting at 2-3, North Texas has simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. You can be proud of the fight and toughness they showed against VCU but disappointed by the lack of the same vs Arkansas and EMU.

The squad is depending on a lot from new faces, but it is the usual suspects that have under-performed relative to their abilities. Roosevelt Smart is not the same player he was two seasons ago, when he was the most dangerous player on the court for the Mean Green. Zach Simmons was incredible last season but has struggled to find his form this year.

North Texas has very little size outside of Simmons and McCasland needs him to be efficient. Last year he shot 61% from 2-point range. This year, he is at just 44%.

It is early, and some of his struggles are from not having Ryan Woolridge finding him and NT not really having an identity thus far. In the VCU game, NT blew two offensive possessions late that could have tied the game, and struggled to run the offense or find their best player. That last part is the key. Who is the best player?

Umoja Gibson has been great so far, but struggles to create his own shot off the bounce. He almost exclusively shoots from distance (240+ attempts from three, 78 from two for his career). He does not get to the line or the cup like Rose did two seasons ago, nor like Woolridge did in his time here.

Javion Hamlet has played well in spots, but has not been the one-for-one replacement for Woolridge (no one was ever going to be able to do that) and there is plenty of time for him to adjust to the team.

The short version is that this team is scrappy, but will be frustrating to watch offensively unless one of these guys makes a leap. We have seen players bloom late in the season for McCasland — remember Mike Miller suddenly switching hands and becoming a ridiculous shooter? — so do not hold tight to an opinion just yet.

The tough schedule — UTA on Dec 2nd, Oklahoma on Dec 5th, Dayton on the 17th — should prepare the squad for the solid CUSA schedule. The travel in this league can be rough, and the teams good enough to beat you on any night.

North Texas’s most realistic shot of an NCAA berth is via the Frisco tournament so all the focus should be on earning a good conference seed, developing the kind of team that can play great basketball over a week’s time in March.

It would be great to see Zach get some easy buckets and that means someone is going to need to be able to attack the basket with authority. There are plenty of guys who can and the rest of this early period will be about finding the one who will.

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Basketball

NT Basketball: NT Nearly Upsets VCU 56-59

North Texas barely stole a game against 25th ranked VCU on the road. NT jumped out to an 8-point lead early before getting bullied by the harassing press. VCU went on a big run and led by ten at the half.

The good news was that the Mean Green stuck with it and scraped and clawed back to single digits. They even managed a brief lead late.

The game ended on a series of threes back-and-forth with NT failing to put up a shot on their final two possessions. The first could have put NT up, and the second would have tied.

It is a bitter sweet loss, as the fight and shooting impressed against a good opponent in a hostile environment. Obviously, NT wants to win these and not just come close.

There were some clear improvement areas — NT had trouble finishing inside with the physicality — but the threat of multiple shooters and the various players with ball handling ability meant NT was able to break the press late.

The Rams had a surprisingly good season last year, winning the conference regular season before bowing out of the NCAA tournament in the first round. They are ranked, well-supported and a good test for NT. We can feel good.

As we wrote recently, in this the third season of Grant McCasland’s tenure we should see more of a fully realized vision. There is no Ryan Woolridge — well here at least. He’s at Gonzaga, now — but there are some guys there.

The new names are Thomas Bell, James Reese, and Javion Hamlet and they are trying to replace Woolridge, Mike Miller and Jorden Duffy — all double figure scorers. New faces in new places is the only thing that is consistent in college basketball so we cannot complain.

Tonight, there were contributions across the board so that aspect of the McCasland Way is intact. Thomas Bell’s rebounding was really nice to see early. He helped build the first lead.

There were some shooting hiccups — James Reese went 3-12, 3-9 from deep — but the season is young and shooting and rhythm will come. It’s nice to see the grit and fight in this one.

The schedule sees NT take on one more top-25 opponent this November, so we will learn of this is something we can expect all season or a on-off performance.

So far, you can be excited about the team.

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Basketball

Expect Anything In Grant McCasland’s Third Year

North Texas beat up on overmatched Oklahoma Christian 79-40 in the traditional glorified scrimmage that kicks off the season. The basketball prognosticators have NT anywhere from 2nd to 8th or so, depending on your flavor of preview.

Last year NT absolutely needed Ryan Woolridge to play every minute and when he was hurt, the team struggled. Umoja Gibson filled in at point, but he is much better as a shoot-first off-guard.

NT started hot but cooled after injuries took the depth and required a change of pace. Even though the team beat FIU in the first round of the league tournament in Frisco, they limped to a loss vs WKU. The day after exiting the tournament, Ryan Woolridge and Zach Simmons looked like walking wounded as they returned to pick up their stuff, limping in and out of the Star in Frisco.

North Texas head coach Grant McCasland has back-to-back 20-win seasons under his belt. His first was bolstered by a pay-for-participation postseason tournament and his second saw a dramatic dip in form.

Whatever criticisms you have of his style, he is winning in Denton, and that was not the case under his predecessor. This season we will likely get the full McCasland basketball theory. He had the one season at Arkansas St and the two here in Denton. Now, with a third year in the program the foundation is laid. It is time to build.

NT wants to drive and kick and have shooters everywhere. Last season, the offense struggled when Roosevelt Smart had a season-long dip in form, but got good moments from Umoja Gibson and Jorden Duffy. Gone is point-guard extraordinaire Ryan Woolridge, but in are a couple of guys with some talent and the ability to shoot.

Javion Hamlet is the new lead guard with Gibson playing his preferred off-guard spot. Rose is at the third guard spot, and hopefully is back to the version of himself that was a problem for defenses across the league.

NT has a lot of length on the depth chart, but the starting lineup is guard-based and will need the shooting and attacking off the dribble to make the offense hum.

James Reese is a shooter with the same measurables. Larry Wise and Abdul Mohamed have been on the team but redshirted. The thinking is that the renewed depth will give North Texas the resiliency to play at the pace they want instead of mitigating because of injury.

The problem with playing such a high-variance style is that some nights everything looks bad. Relying so much on drive-and-kick means the team has a tendency to stagnate, especially against the more disciplined and defensively talented teams in this or other leagues. Drive-and-kick means that you A) can drive and B) the kick options are open if and when the defense collapses to rotate.

Teams with great interior presence will simply let the big man clean up the mess. WKU made it hard for NT to finish inside with either Zach Simmons, who had an incredible year last season, or anyone else.

The schedule is much tougher this season so we will not see a sterling start — but the team may be better for it. Playing a softie schedule can make it difficult to prepare for challenges in conference play. NT did not even get the supposed benefit from it: staying injury free.

WKU is the more talented team and UTEP is rebuilt and renewed. UTSA has the shooters but North Texas has some good players and a coach with lots of respect among those who follow the game. Expect to be entertained.

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Basketball

Exit Interview: 2019 Basketball Team

No one wanted to go out and say “Injuries are why we struggled late, and ultimately why this team underperformed” as no one wanted to “make excuses” but still, the injuries were mentioned and well, that was the real reason.

After the tournament was over for NT, Zach Simmons and Ryan Woolridge could be seen limping on Friday. It was not the usual post-game soreness, but actual pain.

Not many teams at this level can overcome that kind of thing. We knew this team was over-reliant on Woolridge’s contributions, playing him huge minutes often last and this year.

If he went down or out, NT was going to be in a bad spot. That is not surprising or even something to blame the staff or the program for. It is the nature of the game. The roster is only so big, and recruiting limitations mean you cannot simply pick up whomever you want to rebuild your roster overnight.

McCasland said his goal was to get to the NCAA tournament, and given the scheduling, that road was always going to be through the league tournament. To do that successfully, the team needed to earn a second-day spot via bye through earning a top-4 seed.

That mission failed, as NT’s late-season collapse kept it out of the top pod, ensuring the best seed it could get would be the 5th spot. They fell all the way to 10th, after a disastrous pod play schedule in which no one could shoot or defend, or take care of the ball. This is where injuries took their toll and NT limped into the league tournament with seven-straight losses.

The win over FIU was dramatic, cathartic, and well, fun. North Texas blew out the team that had handed a big loss to NT in Miami just the week prior. Revenge gotten, NT went into the quarterfinal round vs WKU with some hope, but nothing serious.

They were blown out handily, and that is forgivable. NT had to play perfectly against the league’s most talented team and the most disappointing part was that they did not even muster much of a fight.

Asked if we could expect some CBI or anything, Grant said “we set our sights on the NCAA Tournament” which is an elaborate way of saying “no.”

The CBI and CIT tournaments are pay-to-play ideal for giving, say, Marshall another set of games to basically send out Jon Elmore with another tournament. North Texas used the opportunity last season to continue to build the program under McCasland and experiment with the set of guys that would play the most this season.

As it was, it all went well. From the CBI opener to the WKU game in February, NT only lost 5 games. They went 21-12 this season, completing back-to-back 20-win seasons since the Johnny Jones era. Realistically, this program was going to give a nice conference tournament run but come up short to the ODUs and WKUs of this league.

That is basically what happened. NT finished with one more win than 17/18 and six fewer losses. Home attendance was up, and they won a league tournament game. All told, we had improvement across the board.

So why the lingering anxiety across the internet fan base? Well, some of that is just typical North Texas angst. The rest is because there was plenty to be concerned about watching this team play. The team defended well — they ended as the number one defense in efficiency according to kenpom.com — but suddenly could not score worth a damn.

The early season success was predicated on four guards around Zach Simmons. Theoretically the small ball would be vulnerable to size in rebounding and defense, but the hustle and athleticism helped NT lead in those categories even against some of the bigger and better teams in this league.

The advantage to playing small-spread ball is shooting and quickness. Unfortunately North Texas’ two best shooters from last season — Roosevelt Smart and DJ Draper — regressed significantly. Smart went from being a threat to being a bad shooter. Incredibly his 3pt percentage dropped from 37% last year to 27% this season. His offensive rating dropped to 86.9 from 110.7.

Anecdotal evidence: he hit 20 points just twice — 20 exactly twice — this season. Compare that to the number of times he went for 30+ last season: 4 times, including a 42-point explosion vs Rice.

DJ Draper dropped from being a sharp-shooter who could change the game to just another guy shooting in the 30% range. He finished the year shooting 37% from distance, making only 16 in conference play compared to his 36 last season. He shot 42% last year.

The whole season is not on those guys in particular, but they had big drops in efficiency. Jorden Duffy dropped a bit also, mostly on this missing more threes than last year (six fewer on ten more attempts).

North Texas has five guys that take greater than 20% of shots for this team. Only one of them is 100+ in offensive rating: Michael Miller. He’s graduated now.

Going Forward

NT needs more height, some dynamism, and someone else that can be a threat to attack the basket aside from Ryan Woolridge, and Zach Simmons. Also, it needs more from the man they call Rose. He has had a tough year mentally, emotionally, and physically.

If he can get back to being the guy we saw last season, NT will be loads better.

Jalen Jackson, the commit from Wager in San Antonio, is a point guard with good athleticism and a nice handle. Watching the tournament and seeing Ahmad Caver, Zack Bryant, Tyree Griffin, Tavieon Hollingsworth and DaQuan Bracey handle the ball really highlights and issue NT had when Ryan Woolridge was hurt.

Jackson addresses that backup PG need. NT can get away with more small ball if the guys that sat can light it up from distance. Umoja Gibson can thrive when he doesn’t have to create for himself and can simply catch and shoot.

Wish List:

  1. Backup Big
  2. Go-to scorer — either Rose of 17/18 returns or a guy to push him for minutes
  3. Another ball-handler

This program had a good season despite the poor finish. Grant McCasland completed his first 2nd year at a D-I school. He previously took Arkansas State to a 20-win season and NT to the CBI title last year.

This league is wide-open. NT went from a laughing stock to top-five for a good portion of this season in just two years.

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Basketball Basketball Recaps

North Texas Loses Big to WKU, 67-51

All seasons that do not end with a trophy presentation end badly. For North Texas, who this time last year was feeling much better about itself and its program, this was a doubly bad game.

In some ways, however, it was a relief.

“We had some guys playing with some things that you wouldn’t believe. It’s inspiring, that leadership” said Zach Simmons in the post game press conference debrief.

McCasland said “we had our sights on the NCAA tournament” so this is it barring some fluke of a Selection Sunday.

North Texas basketball finishes 21-12, one win better than last season’s CBI tournament team and six losses better to boot. It most ways, it was a better year than last. Why does it feel so devastating? Well, the terrible finish to the year, after a 20-4 start, NT fell seven straight times.

Tonight, they fell to the better team. Grant McCasland blamed himself in the post game, crediting the Western Kentucky defense and their game plan to deny entry passes and make things difficult.

WKU coach Rick Stansbury said they focussed on Umoja Gibson in particular, limiting his touches and “not letting him get 7 threes tonight.”

The game plan worked for Western.

North Texas struggled in the first half. At the 7:50 mark, Roosevelt Smart had just travelled and WKU led 22-8. This was not about the effort or even the energy level. It was about talent and defense.

WKU defended everything well. They denied the ball and the next pass and the on-ball stuff that NT was killing FIU with. They denied entry passes and swing passes and NT was travelling and double-dribbling because they had to make second and third moves to create space.

Grant McCasland said “we got sped up.”

The Mean Green made a little run with a little over a minute left in the half to get something going. The crowd, ready to celebrate anything positive jumped on that and began a North/Texas chant. Simmons scored a tough bucket and then the defense forced a WKU turnover.

Rick Stansbury, WKU coach, was upset and called TO. NT couldn’t convert but that got the energy up. NT forced another stop — a shot clock violation — that got Stansbury as red as the uniforms.

“When North Texas cut it to 13 we got five straight to make it 18 and they never threatened after that” said Stansbury in the post game press conference.

It was true. Tavieon Hollingsworth was finding space in the midrange and pulling up for clutch jumpers. He had 23 on 9/15 shooting.

In the end the half ended in stark contrast to last night’s first half. Instead of Ryan Woolridge hitting a three-quarter court bucket, he was stripped of the ball as time expired. NT was down 31-16 at that point, shooting 25% in the first, turning the ball over 11 times.

WKU had shot a mediocre 38% with 6 turnovers of their own during that period.

North Texas played Western 35-36 in the second half, to little progress. The first half deficit was too much. Ryan Woolridge had 13 and Jordan Duffy had 11 to lead NT. Gibson added 7 and only went 1/7 from distance.

Zach Simmons had 8 and 13 against future NBA-er Charles Bassey, who only had 9 and 8 himself.

What It All Means

Grant McCasland was noticeably devastated after the game. The last half of the season was full of injuries and poor play. The roster is kind of a weird mix, and McCasland deserves credit for getting this short team to out-rebound and defend really well.

The offensive end has a nice one-two punch in Ryan Woolridge and Zach Simmons. Unfortunately, the spread attack went limp too often. DJ Draper’s 3PT % dropped to 36% from 42% while making just over half his total from last year.

Roosevelt Smart went from a 36% gunner to a 27% guy and his offensive rating went from 110 to 86.

Was it injuries? Mental focus? It is difficult to say but it is McCasland’s job to know and change it. Still, whatever quibbles the fan base has with this program are just that — quibbles — given the tremendous progress this team has made in just his two years at the helm.

It is easy to see a future where NT is one of the favored teams in Frisco, but it is a long way before NT has a program the calibre of Western Kentucky, a basketball mainstay for decades.

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Basketball Basketball Recaps

North Texas Wins 2018 CBI Tournament 88-77 Over San Francisco Dons

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.

The Game

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.