We all hoped that Grant McGasland would bring some of the magic that saw Arkansas State get to 20 wins last year. At the very least we hoped for a team that would be competitive and exciting. Halfway through the game on Saturday against Middle Tennessee, the league’s number one team and likely Tournament entrant no matter the outcome of the league postseason, I realized that North Texas was giving the Blue Raiders everything they could handle and making them work hard for it at home.
The hey day of NT basketball ended just short of a decade ago when Johnny Jones left for his dream job at LSU. He left the foundation of a good program, with good players on the roster and good players coming in. When McGasland arrived in Denton all that good was gone and the stuff of whispers. The Super Pit was a shell of it’s former self and by the end of Tony Benford’s time everyone who cared wanted something approaching respectability on the court.
This season has not been perfect but it feels miles different from the previous incarnations. The team competes, and looks competent. While every team — even poor ones — have plans, they do not always look like it when on the court. Sometimes that is because it is a bad plan, sometimes it is execution, often the plan is disregarded by the players on the court because they do not believe in it. We saw some version of these in previous years and the 2017-2018 version of MBB looks like they do, in fact, have a plan and are trying to execute it with conviction every night.
That is good coaching. Outside of sports, this dynamic happens every day. A new manager with impeccable credentials comes in and fails to inspire their charges or motivate them or communicate the plan in a way that allows everyone to execute it effectively. A different manager comes in with the same or lesser credentials and his team clicks and everyone get it. So it is with basketball. Being a good coach is not always about how much knowledge or experience a person has, but how well they can communicate that idea and inspire the team to follow it with conviction, consistently.
For the long time sufferers, it is refreshing to see a good team in Denton again. While it is tempting to look ahead, or feel like the suffering of the last half-decade mean a quicker run to the top is deserved that would be incorrect. Nothing is deserved. Middle Tennessee is clearly the better team on a night-to-night basis and can conjure up multiple ways to win a game. They have won games in tougher settings than at home against a scrappy little mid-table team before and will do so again. Kermit Davis is the more experienced coach. Still, we can see the outlines of a program that can eventually compete with the likes of MTSU and the top of CUSA. While the league very well may be able to manufacture two bids, there is a lot of parity the rest of the way.
So while the team lost for some of the same reasons that look so simple to correct — free throws, turnovers — the time and effort to fix those issues is a lot more significant than is commonly perceived.
Basketball is a funny game and while it generally favors the better team over time, anything can and does happen on a given night. The Mean Green are very early in the turnaround. The last game was encouraging and provides the slightest bit of fantasy fodder when thinking about this year’s league tournament, but the reality is that NT is still a work very much in progress.