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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

Zachary Simmons Is Good

 

Previously, I linked to some of the good stuff Zach did against Tech. I wanted to discuss something else he did against UTEP last night. This play is not particular special in that it does not have some outstanding display of other-worldly athleticism like any Zion Williamson highlight. This is instead just good post play.

As my tweet highlights, the play has four things that are difficult for some players to master. Playing as the lone-big man is difficult and exhausting. Simmons has to battle all night and still do things that require good technique. Watch how he gets into position by setting a screen, sealing his man (who had helped on the screen by showing high) and holding him off.

Screen cap ESPN+

So much of any sport is doing the work before the play comes your way. This is good stuff. If we could get a great pas into the post he can simply turn and score. As it was, Woolridge had to toss it out a bit, but Zach still had the ball in a good spot to work on his man one-on-one.

Screen cap ESPN+

Zach then goes to work. This seems easy — I mean he is just backing down the defender, right? The answer is not really. Simmons is a right-handed player and every part of this is not necessarily natural. The balance and timing required to attack his defender from this position requires development. Finally he finishes at the rim with a nice left hook.

Screen capture | ESPN+

This again is not easy. Plenty of guys can do this in practice against ‘air’ but not against a guy trying to push you out of the paint. He gets his right shoulder into his defender, rises, leans and gets the soft, lefty finish there. It is simple, but requires so much skill and touch and hours in the lab.

All of the above skills are taught to big men throughout all the levels of basketball — well, they at least used to be — and while we all favor bigs that can screen and finish at the rim like Clint Capela, there is value in the traditional post-up play.

No, we do not want to take 35 of these a game, but it is unbelievably useful to have this in the repertoire.

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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.

Categories
Basketball

2017-18 North Texas Basketball Preview

Outlook

New Mean Green Coach Grant McCasland has been tasked with returning NT basketball to 20 wins, but that’s not all he must do. McCasland must also take this Mean Green program to new heights. Heights that include conference championships, NCAA post season tournaments appearances, and winning games in the Big Dance.

It wont be easy for McCasland in his first year. He wasn’t left with a great roster. There is plenty of rebuilding and reloading to do. McCasland brought in 8 new players. This season will be all about mixing those new pieces together. That was always the case under Tony Benford, but he never knew how to correctly build or manage a mid major program. NT is hoping that McCasland can fix the issues of past and turn NT into a solid mid major program.

Who Is Out?

Well nearly everyone is out. Only 7 players returning, which is not a bad thing, but the constant roster turnover needs to stop under this new staff. The biggest loss is F Jeremy Combs. He was often the lone bright spot under Tony Benford. Mean Green fans could count on a Combs double double every night. I hope nothing but the best for Mr. Combs as he takes his talent to LSU. Other notable losses would include Deckie Johnson and Derail Green. Both Johnson and Green were viable scoring threats. J-Mychal Reese the primary ball handler was granted a medical wavier and his release. Reese has yet to commit to a new school. Ja’Michael Brown is gone, he flashed some potential and could have fit well in the new system.

This is what UNT losing in terms of stat production

  • 58% of their minutes
  • 30% of their offensive rebounds
  • 50% of their defensive rebounds
  • 60% of their assists
  • 55% of their blocks
  • 51% of their steals
  • 58% of their points

Who Is In?

North Texas loaded up with plenty of JUCO firepower in McCasland’s first recruiting class. Roosevelt Smart is a 6-3 guard who can get to the rim, but will be better known for his outside shooting. 6-1 Jorden Duffy is a smooth ball handler who will see some time at point. Duffy filled it up at San Jacinto College averaging 19.4 ppg. Shawnee Community College guard Michael Miller is a combo guard, who averaged 14.3 ppg. Tope Arikawe will bolster the rebounding and paint protection. Arikawe is 6-8 F from Panola College who averaged 11.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg.

Umoja Gibson may end up being the everyday starting point guard by year’s end. Gibson averaged 22.4 ppg and 11.1 apg at University High School in Waco last year. Gibson is a really good shooter. Zachary Simmons a 6-9 F from Cedar Hill HS in Abilene could very well be starting too. The freshman will help provide rim protection, but he may end up being the best scoring big in the paint. Simmons averaged 16 ppg, 12 rpg, and 6 bpg. A freshman that McCasland is quite high on is 6-10 F Mark Tikhonenko. Tikhonenko is a big man with range. I am not sure how much time Tikhonenko will see early on, but his potential is very high.

Who Is Returning?

Perhaps McCasland’s best recruiting effort was getting AJ Lawson and Ryan Woolridge to stick around. Lawson and Woolridge were a few the bright spots coming from such an ugly season. Lawson led the team in scoring and Woolridge was 4th. These two are the leading returning scorers. McCasland has something to build around here — Lawson can get to the rim whenever he wants, but he needs to improve his outside shooting. Woolridge is great in the open court and can also get to the bucket, but he needs to work on his ball security.

Other notable returners are Shane Temara and Allante Holston. Temara will provide front court depth, outside shooting, and a veteran presence. Holston will provide defensive ability, versatility, and depth.

Player Breakdown

https://www.canva.com/design/DACTViiQf6I/view

GRADES
Backcourt Frontcourt Bench/Depth
B- C- C-

Projected Starters

  • G Ryan Woolridge
  • G Roosevelt Smart
  • G AJ Lawson
  • F Zachary Simmions
  • F Shane Temara

Schedule Breakdown

Home or Away Winners 60% + Chance at a W
H Eureka College
H Bethune Cookman
H UTRGV
H Rogers State
H Grambling St.
H McNeese State
A Southern Miss
H Florida Atlantic
H Florida International
A Florida International
 Home or Away Toss Ups 40-60%
A Nebraska
H Indiana State
A San Diego
A Georgetown
A UTEP
 A  UTSA
H Charlotte
A  Rice
H Rice
H Western Kentucky
H Marshall
A Florida Atlantic
H  UTSA
H UTEP
 Home or Away Need a Prayer Less than 40%
A Georgia Tech
A Oklahoma
A Texas-Arlington
H Old Dominion
A  Louisiana Tech
A UAB
A Middle Tennessee State

CUSA Basketball Rankings

Rank Team Backcourt Frontcourt
1 MTSU A B
2 La Tech A B
3 Old Dominion A- B+
4 UAB B B
5 WKU B B+
6 UTEP B B
7 Marshall A- B-
8 Charlotte A B-
9 North Texas B- C –
10 Rice B- C+
11 UTSA C+ C+
12 FAU B C-
13 Southern Miss C+ D+
14 FIU C- D+

Final Projection

This 2017-18 North Texas team will be much improved from last years. There is a good amount of immediate impact talent coming in to replace who left. What can be expected is that this team may look sloppy and struggle early on. They may have to grind out wins early, which is okay. Any time when you have so much roster turnover it takes time for players to develop their roles. McCasland will get these guys to figure it out, he’s a good coach with a good staff.

I expect North Texas to be a very physical man to man defensive team. A team that will rely on its defense to create offense at times. Under McCasland there will be more emphasis on defensive fundamentals that’s guaranteed. Offensively I believe NT will be more up-tempo than under Benford. I do expect them to be a motion offense team again, although McCasland will do a better job of teaching the principles.  It will be interesting to see who develops into the go to scorer when crunch time comes around. Or who will be the guy that NT goes to in order to stop a run. Early money would be on AJ Lawson, but I wouldn’t surprised if Duffy or Smart take the role either.

Bottom line is NT is playing catch-up to a pretty talented CUSA league. While NT was adding talent so was everyone else. It’s going to be tough for the Mean Green to turn heads in year one under McCasland. Most projections have NT finishing no better than 12th in CUSA. I think they are better than that. I certainly think this team can climb into the middle of the pack in CUSA play. What I’m unsure of is just how high can this team climb. A lot of that will be determined by how fast these guys become accustomed to playing with one another. The other big piece will be player development. Either way North Texas fans should be happy with the progress they see from this team. I think you’re going to see a team compete nearly every night. I think they are going to steal a few games in league play. I really think they will be an exciting team to watch. Finally I believe North Texas will end up winning 18 games during the regular season and 1 in post season play finishing with a record of 19-14.