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MBB: Rice Upsets NT in Houston

North Texas was expected to go to Rice and handle business. The thing about basketball is that it is a rhythm game and NT would be coming off a week-long break. Rice, after all, was on that same week-long break but at home.

Things like this happen in this game and we should not read too much into this loss. There were mistakes made — missed reads, missed shots, bad possessions and some confusion on defense. There were also some good things — good shooting, a little comeback, and some clutch plays toward the end.

NT got the looks they wanted for a good portion of the game but was not making them. Rice got themselves some good looks and made them. They also had a little more luck — a missed shot at the end of the possession falls into Javion Hamlet’s hand and he knocks it out instead of grabbing it, for example.

Short version: I don’t know that we make too much of this game beyond that NT still has some things to work on. There is another mini-break before traveling to Murfreesboro and then Birmingham. NT drops to 14-9, 8-2 and into a tie in the loss column vs LA Tech. NT of course has the head-to-head advantage over Tech by virtue of the buzzer-beating win on Jan 18.

NT shot well but had a slow first half start. They scored 34 in the first and 41 in the second. Rice had 44 and then 40. NT pulled ahead late but let it slip, with some missed shots and turnovers. Rice hit their catch-and-shoot threes and NT missed theirs in the last four minutes or so.

Zach Simmons was not as crisp, missing a bunny late. DJ Draper and Mo Gibson had 18 each. Hamlet had 15.

Notes: James Harden was in the house. There was a nice little crowd.

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North Texas Bests UTSA In Both Women’s and Men’s Basketball

In San Antonio, Jalie Mitchell’s squad cruised to a 79-55 win in a game played at 11am. In Denton, Grant McCasland’s group dominated UTSA at home while celebrating the 2009-2010 Sun Belt Champ squad led by Johnny Jones.

WBB cruised all game. UTSA cut the lead to 15 late but that was about all they could muster. Jalie said “there isn’t much to complain about.” True dat.

The men dominated throughout although Jhivvan Jackson got his team within five midway through the second half. NT responded to the run, and pulled away for a bit win. Honoring the 2010 team was a good moment and a nice link to the last time NT MBB were yearly contenders.

UTSA men is a terrible defensive team and NT took full advantage. Umoja Gibson had 27, and Javion Hamlet got 22. NT worked Jackson in the pick-and-roll early and often and made UTSA work. Jackson was able to put up some numbers but NT kept them at a distance, forcing him to get in the paint and pull up from distance with a hand in his face or from the logo.

Basketball always favors the offense, and the goal of defense is to force low-percentage shots and not necessarily prevent makes. It is a mitigation strategy. If he is going to make them from that distance that is a win for the defense. NT dominated and continues its dance around the top seed in the league. There is plenty of basketball to play so no one should get comfortable, but right now the team is playing really good basketball.

It is okay to smile.

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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

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

North Texas Basketball Is Back

The greatest North Texas basketball game I have been to was the win over Texas Tech in the Super Pit on Tuesday November 16th, 2011. The place was packed and North Texas won 92-83 in OT. Josh White had 32 points including a clutch basket down the stretch.

NT went 20-11 that season, averaged 4006 fans and fought through a mid-season slump and ultimately lost to UALR in the Sun Belt title game by one point. Since then, NT has been on a slow regression to terrible.

Enter Grant McCasland.

He has reinvigorated the program with a modern style, energy and most precious: wins. North Texas basketball is 14-1 on the season and yes, a good portion of those wins were against bad programs. There is value in preparing for league play with a rough-and-tumble non-conference schedule. There is also value in building up confidence and rhythm and hype.

North Texas needed good feelings more than it needed tough competition. The same rationale applied when the Mean Green entered the College Basketball Invitational — a throwaway postseason tournament to a good number of teams. They won that tournament, against okay competition, and built up the hype and good feelings that have carried over into this season.

Oh, and the style of play was honed in that tournament. Senior guard Michael Miller was famously coached to switch his shooting hand in the pregame shootaround and thus began a new style of play that has carried over to this season.

As we enter conference play, let us take a closer look at our Mean Green:

0 Ryan Woolridge: G 6’3″ JR

Woolridge has been an iron man in his three years at NT, playing a ton and handling the ball as the primary point guard. He is quick and can get to the basket and finish around the rim. He has extended his range to three this season but still does not shoot a ton from there even though he’s at .400 from deep this season. He is iffy from the FT line, or we would see him average something like 14-17 PPG.  In this drive-and-kick offense he is one of the guys that can get anywhere he wants.

Advanced numbers via KenPom.com

Numbers: 12.9 PPG 6.3 RPG 5.2 APG | 102.0 OffRtg 24.5 %Poss 54.6 eFG% 27.3 ARate 43.3 FTRate

2 Jorden Duffy: G 6’1″ SR 

Duffy is a scorer who can light it up from deep when he is on. In the CBI he was finally healthy and he broke out with 18 per game. He’s not been hitting them at the same rate this season, but he’s averaging 10 a game and is a solid contributor right now. He’s a streaky guy so expect him to break out during this conference season.

Numbers: 10.0 PPG 4.2 RPG 2.2 APG | 103.9 ORtg 19.1 %Poss 42.9 eFG% 34.7 FTRate

3 Roosevelt Smart: G 6’3″ JR 

Rose is listed as a guard but he plays the “three” or SF position often. In modern basketball this is not really a big deal, but this is also usually a bigger wing than the two-guard. NT is shorter across the board, so the 6’1″ Umoja Gibson will often play the two while Rose is at the 3. Smart is a shooter, plain and simple, and he can light it up. He had an injury in the offseason. He’s not quite back to the level he was at last year (110 ORtg, 19.5 per game compared to this year’s 95.7, 10 ppg) but he is working his way back into shape.

He is not driving and getting to the line as much and that is a good reason why he isn’t as efficient or effective just yet. He’ll get there.

Numbers: 10.9 PPG 2.4 RPG 1.3 APG | 95.7 ORtg 22.4 % Poss 50.0 eFG% 6 FTRate

23 Michael Miller: G 6’3″ SR

Mike Miller broke out in the CBI and he has been incredible since. He had 35 against Arkansas Pine-Bluff on 5/6 shooting from deep. He can shoot now, and has developed a nice little midrange attack using both hands. NT plays him at the 4-spot often and you can see how the four-guard lineup can be lethal with so many scorers spreading the floor. He has made 11 threes thus far this season, which was last year’s season total.

Numbers: 11.4 PPG 4.6 RPG 1.2 APG | 126.1 ORtg 20.7 %Poss 65.7 eFG% 32.5 FTRate

24 Zachary Simmons: F 6’10” SO

The key to this four-guard lineup has been Zach Simmons’ play. He has to do all the big man work since he is the lone big man. His offensive rating (131.2) is 31st in the nation among all players who have used at least 16% of their team’s possesions. That is to say he has been an efficient and productive offensive player.

Against Louisiana Tech Simmons was instrumental. Witness these two plays late — the patience in the post to get a layup over two guys, and the movement to make the final Tech drive difficult.

Numbers: 12.3 PPG 6.9 RPG 0.8 ASG | 131.2 ORtg 19.3 %Poss 64.6 eFG% 31.1 FTRate

The Bench


1 Umoja Gibson: G 6’1″ RFR

Umoja balled out in his first couple games last season before he was injured for the year. He has returned to the roster and filled in nicely in Smart’s absence.  He’s quick and can shoot the ball well. Right now, he is mostly a three-point shooter in this offense, taking far more threes than twos. He had an off night vs Tech, and that contributed to the Tech comeback.

On the right night he will be a game-changer.

Numbers: 12.4. PPG 2.3 RPG 1.6 APG | 95.4 ORtg 19.8 %Poss 45.6 eFG% 26.4 FTRate

10 Jamiah Simmons: F 6’4″ RSO

Simmons came along with Grant McCasland from Arkansas State. He is a burly forward that is rebounding well — his defensive rebounding rate is just about where Zach Simmons is at 17.7%.

Numbers: 4.6 PPG 4.3 RPG 0.8 APG | 101.0 ORtg 16.2 %Poss 47.9 eFG% 53.2 FTR

55 DJ Draper: G 5’10” JR

DJ is a fan favorite shooter. He has not been getting the same kind of time as he was last season, but he’ll come in and hit a three and sit down. Occasionally, he’ll make a great play that isn’t shooting and twitter will go wild. This is as it should be.

Numbers: 4.6 PPG 1.0 RPG 1.2 APG | 141.9 ORtg 8.7 %Poss 63.5 eFG% .478 3PT%

20 Tope Arikawe: F 6’8″ SR

Tope is big and powerful but does not get a ton of minutes. McCasland mostly prefers Zach for playing the big spot and four guards around him. Tope will come in and set screens and rebound. He has some touch around the basket but he is not scoring at the same rate he was last season. He’s only getting about 10% of the minutes so we won’t list numbers here.

13 Mark Tikhonenko: F 6’10” FR

Mark can shoot the ball but has not appeared in the recent games. He played well in the early season as NT was running throuhg some lineups and beating up on some minnows. Ideally he would be a stretch-four but with the four-guard lineup NT is running now, this is unnecessary.

35 Shakeem Alcindor: F 6’8″ FR

Another big-body forward who got minutes in a blowout. Good size.

The Season

North Texas has the third-best adjusted efficiency margin in the league — again, according to KenPom — at +5.39, just behind über talented Western Kentucky at +6.38 and defensive monster Old Dominion at +8.73.. Things will settle into a different rhythm once everyone is deeper into league play. Right now NT’s league-only offensive rating is 126 — number one in the conference — and that is heavily influenced by destroying the worst team defense in Rice on the road.

North Texas was expected to finish somewhere behind Western, Marshall, ODU, and maybe Tech. Thus far, the advanced numbers from the non-conference season and the first week of league play have bore that out.

The Mean Green are playing like a good team, with a balanced scoring attack reliant on spreading the floor and controlling the tempo. FIU (leads the nation!), Marshall, and UTSA play at a super-high pace, while NT plays fairly deliberately.

When NT is hitting threes, they are nigh-unstoppable, as most teams are. Usually, one or two of NT’s primary scorers are on, while the other is struggling a bit. This is fairly common in the game. The metronomes are Zach Simmons and Ryan Woolridge. While some of the other guys can get to the rim, Simmons and Woolridge are the two that can get inside and make things happen with consistency.

NT will face a few challenges in this league campaign. Louisiana Tech is talented — we all saw how DaQuan Bracey broke down the NT defense. Western Kentucky has 5-star freshman 6’11” Charles Bassey, 245 lbs, and dominant.

ODU is physically imposing and has two talented senior players in Ahmad Caver and BJ Stith. Marshall has Jon Elmore and CJ Burks, two of the best players in the league but has not been as efficient on either end without the departed Ajdin Penava.

The non-conference schedule was soft, so even a 1-loss season mixed with a conference tournament exit will not guarantee an NCAA bid. NT needs to win the tournament, and so this league season is about getting a good placement there. In a single-elimination tournament, any squad can get hot and upset someone. We saw Southern Miss eliminate Middle last season.

Whatever happens, this should be a fun season. North Texas basketball is back.

Schedule

The league schedule is Thurs/Saturday in league play. After February 16, the league switches to pod play. NT will be grouped according to their finish to have an 18-game schedule. More information can be found here.

January

  • Saturday Jan 5 – Southern Miss
  • Thursday Jan 10 – @ UTEP
  • Saturday Jan 12 – @ UTSA
  • Saturday Jan 19 – Rice
  • Thursday Jan 24 – UAB
  • Saturday Jan 26 – MTSU
  • Thursday Jan 31 – @ ODU

Feb

  • Sat Feb 2 – @ Charlotte
  • Thu Feb 7 – Marshall
  • Sat Feb 9 – WKU
  • Thu Feb 14 – @ FAU
  • Sat Feb 16 – @ FIU

Kenpom has NT winning all of these with the exception of the ODU game.