Last year North Texas won Conference USA but was robbed of a chance to cause some damage in the NCAA Tournament. This year they bring a senior-laden team to the Dance looking to upset Purdue. Here is what Adam Martinez from the site Mean Green Nation had to say about North Texas:
T-Mill: I am completely unfamiliar with North Texas and Purdue hasn’t played them since the only meeting way back in 1970. What is the history of your basketball program?
Adam: The short and sweet version is that NT basketball in the last 20 years has had two good eras: The Johnny Jones one (five 20-win seasons, two tournament appearances, two conference tournament titles) and the current era under McCasland (three 20-win seasons 3+seasons, one regular season title [last year’s pandemic cancelled one] and one conference tournament win)
The in-between years under Tony Benford saw NT severely underperform and waste some talent.
Older alumni will wax poetic about decades in the Southland but that is before my time so I cannot speak on that.
NT has a handful of alumni playing overseas like Shannon Shorter and Roger Franklin. The most recent NBA draft pick came in 2013 when Tony Mitchell was drafted by the Pistons. He now plays in the Puerto Rican league.
T-Mill: I saw you guys were somewhat of a surprise winner of the Conference USA Tournament. Did you guys get hot at the right time or play to preseason expectations?
Adam: A little bit of both. As I mentioned, most of the current squad was part of the team that won the regular season title last year and was the top-seed going into the cancelled tournament. This season, they underperformed relative to their own standards but Javion Hamlet, last year’s league player of the year, returned and NT felt like they could do the same things. They lost Umoja Gibson to transfer to Oklahoma, but have settled around the roster. All that preamble aside, they entered the final week series vs UAB needing just a split to earn a bye in the league tournament and possibly earn the top spot in the division.
I feel like I might need to explain the CUSA schedule a bit here for that all to make perfect sense. The league decided to have a two-game Friday-Saturday series. So NT’s 14 conference games came against just 7 opponents.
NT lost both to a solid UAB squad at home, and that dropped them from at least a top-four conference spot (and a first round bye) to a 3rd seed. That meant NT had to win four games in four days. NT was around the top three or four in both offensive and defensive efficiency all season, however, so they were deserving champs. Not quite a Georgetown story here, but Louisiana Tech just as good if not better, and WKU was more talented (Charles Bassey).
T-Mill: What style of play do you guys have?
Adam: McCasland likes to slow the tempo and look for paint touches and three pointers. NT has been super efficient under his coaching staff, and this particular team works through Javion Hamlet. He is a 6’3” lefty guard that likes to get in the paint for quick floaters and draw fouls. Think James Harden without the same explosion or reliance on threes. Hamlet is a great free throw shooter and a capable marksman from distance but he does his damage by breaking down the defender and getting in middle of the paint and flipping a floater.
Defensively, NT is mostly man with the occasional zone look to mix it up. McCasland — perhaps because of his playing career? — has had a roster full of undersized but big-hearted guys that will compete. This team gave Arkansas, WVU, and Loloyla-Chicago a handful this season and a lot of that is just being feisty on defense.
Everyone is a tough defender, but the strength is in the team dynamic. The squad probably challenges shots too much and occasionally will foul a three-point shooter (happened once in all three games in the tournament) but Thomas Bell, the 6’6” 4-man can guard 1-5 capably in spots. He actually guarded WKU’s Charles Bassey for a stretch and while he didn’t lock him down, he made life difficult. He got the game winning block on the WKU SG in the title game. He also guarded the opposition’s best SF throughout the tournament.
In short, NT believes in defense and working for the right play. They grind it out but its not ugly basketball, just slow-paced.
T-Mill: Purdue’s strength is in the post with Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. How do you hope to match up with them?
Adam: As I mentioned, NT makes up for size and athleticism disadvantages by playing as a team, and playing with good fundamentals. Charles Bassey was mostly held up, and Louisiana Tech’s big man Kenneth Lofton was defended the same way. Bassey still had a solid game, however.
CUSA’s top (UAB, NT, Marshall to an extent, WKU, Tech, maybe ODU) are solid teams with good defenses but it is not the Big Ten, certainly not in 2021. I expect NT will guard the bigs the way they have all teams with a formidable presence: packing the lane and digging down on the first move.
Purdue will have open looks from three and they will need to knock those down.
The real concern I have is with the guards for the Boilermakers. In the (admittedly small sample) I have watched, they all are like 6’4” and like to get in passing lanes and get run outs. North Texas got in trouble against UAB’s zone — they are long and get in passing lanes and get run outs) and that could be the biggest issue.
T-Mill: What will it take to get your program’s first NCAA Tournament win.
Adam: The ingredients for a win are these:
1. Javion Hamlet clutch buckets. He is the engine of the team. Second half scoring: 12 of 15 in the quarterfinal, 14 of 18 in the semis. In the final, he had 6 of NT’s 13 in OT. He has come up big when they needed him to and will be needed to continue that.
2. Shooting with confidence — NT’s deliberate offense can sometimes mean guys are not taking good shots because they are hunting for better. Against good opponents all you might get is the first good look. They had this issue vs the tourney teams (Arkansas, WVU, LOY) and even Mississippi St (NIT bound). They seem to have broken that habit in the league tournament.
3. Zach Simmons holding his own — NT relies on big man Simmons for touches and buckets. He got a couple of scores one on one vs league DPOY Charles Bassey that were huge and he will need to score on at least half of his shots vs the Purdue bigs.
4. A sprinkle of magic — Top to bottom the Boilermakers have more talent but NT is a good squad with some tough-minded players that have won a lot. Every upset needs some “I can’t believe that!” plays.