The 2023 NCAA Tournament is approaching, and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “Making the Case” series continues by looking at the North Texas Mean Green.
There comes a time in every college basketball season when almost every bubble team repeatedly loses games. Wisconsin has lost nine of 13; West Virginia has dropped three in a row; New Mexico has lost four of five; North Carolina has dropped five of six.
Nobody wants to be in the field.
Do we really have to select 68 teams?
Those comments arise every February and March, and the 2022-23 season is no different.
While those teams mentioned above — and others — are struggling down the stretch, it is worth noting the groups that have quietly risen into at-large contention. One such group is the North Texas Mean Green, holders of the nation’s eighth-longest winning streak (eight games). They have risen 22 spots on KenPom since their winning streak started. Sweeping UAB during this stretch also boosts their resume.
North Texas has made up a ton of ground over the last few weeks, but it is still on the outside looking in. The Mean Green are featured in only one of 100 fields on the Bracket Matrix. How can they continue to rise — and potentially get over the projected cutline — in the coming weeks? Let’s dive into their year-to-date results, upcoming schedule and historical comparisons.
Winning away from home matters
Road wins are incredibly important, and the selection committee reiterated that during its Bracket Preview by rewarding some teams for high-level victories away from home.
North Texas does not have high-quality road wins; its best win away from home is over UAB. What it does have, though, is an abundance of victories outside The Super Pit. The Mean Green lead the country in wins away from home with 13. They are 4-1 at neutral sites and 9-2 in true road games. In two of those “neutral-site” games, UNT played Grand Canyon in Phoenix and UMass in Massachusetts — hard to call those true neutrals.
The Mean Green may not play as tough a road schedule as some high-major teams, but they have beaten the teams in front of them. Their sheer quantity of away-from-home victories — and win percentage in such games — should carry weight relative to the rest of the bubble:
The quality of road wins for other teams on the bubble teams doesn’t necessarily outweigh North Texas’s quantity. For instance, the Mean Green’s road win at UAB (NET 66) is not dissimilar from West Virginia’s best win coming at Pitt (NET 50) or USC’s best win at Arizona State (NET 70).
Put simply, North Texas’ performance away from home compares very favorably with the rest of the bubble.
The metrics are a mixed bag
While the Mean Green can feel good about their performances outside of Denton, it’s harder to make the at-large argument for North Texas based on its quality metrics.
North Texas currently has an average ranking of 69.0 in quality metrics (KenPom, BPI, Sagarin), the second-lowest of any team in the bubble conversation; only a quickly-fading Clemson is lower at 74.3. On the bright side, they are trending in the right direction. North Texas has improved its quality metric average from 82.3 to 69.0 since Feb. 3. The Mean Green now aren’t too far off from teams such as Missouri, Wisconsin and New Mexico, but this is still a knock on UNT’s resume.
Meanwhile, North Texas’s resume metrics tell a different story. The Mean Green rank 43rd in SOR and 45th in KPI. Those numbers — better than those of USC, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, North Carolina and New Mexico — keep UNT firmly in the bubble conversation.
There is also a stronger correlation to selection for resume metrics than quality metrics. Nobody in the NET era has earned an at-large bid with sub-60 resume metrics; seven teams have done so with sub-60 quality metrics. Even a team as low as 81.3 in quality metrics (2022 Wyoming) has earned a bid.
Alas, six of those seven teams came from top-seven conferences on KenPom — Conference USA currently ranks 10th out of 32 leagues. North Texas must find a way to improve its quality metrics or hope the committee prioritizes its solid resume metrics and wins away from home.
Investigating the quadrant records
The flaws in the at-large argument for North Texas also extend into the quadrant records of the team.
First and foremost, the Mean Green lack a win over the projected field. Their best wins of the entire season both came again UAB, which doesn’t move the needle much. The road win over the Blazers is UNT’s lone Quadrant 1 win — granted, that is one more Q1 win than some bubble teams. North Texas only has three total wins over the upper two quadrants, and they have a pair of Quad 3 losses to overcome.
None of their remaining three games are needle-movers, but they are potential landmines. UNT must win out its regular season to remain in the bubble mix.
North Texas, the underdog of this year’s bubble, will also be rooting for the powerhouses down the stretch. The Mean Green need top seeds like Virginia and Kansas to hold serve against bubble squads in North Carolina and West Virginia, among other examples. UNT cannot afford high-major bubble teams adding signature wins, as the Mean Green don’t have the opportunities to keep up.
What are the positives?
Enough about the negatives of UNT’s teamsheet. North Texas’ single Quad 1 win is more than Utah State, North Carolina and Charleston have. That gives the Mean Green a leg up on at least those teams.
Another item worth noting is the sheer number of Quad 3 games that North Texas has played. Unlike many mid-majors who pile up Quad 4 victories in hopes of at-large contention, the Mean Green have done most of their damage in Quad 3. They do have two losses in those games, but they have 11 victories to offset those.
Yes, UNT has played 20 games against the bottom two quadrants, but it went 18-2 in those games. That deserves some credit. Teams like Houston, Saint Mary’s, UConn, and Gonzaga have all dropped Quad 3 games, too. TCU, Kentucky and Iowa all have Quad 4 losses — heck, Texas A&M has two!
Six of the top 15 teams in the NET have at least one Q3 or Q4 loss this season, up from only two last year. That trend spreads throughout the projected field, with teams like New Mexico — owners of four Q3+4 losses — right in the mix. Winning in Quad 3 isn’t easy; the best teams in the country have shown that with their losses.
If high-major teams are regularly dropping Quad 3 games, shouldn’t it be impressive that UNT has won 84.6 percent of those games? That is a crucial question the committee will need to answer when evaluating North Texas.
Surprisingly, UNT’s nonconference strength of schedule is also a little feather in its cap relative to other bubble teams. The Mean Green’s NCSOS ranks No. 184 in the country, better than several teams in the at-large mix, including Arizona State, Utah State, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, Penn State and Texas Tech.
“Neutral” Sites Need more Nuance
North Texas has a “neutral site” win over Grand Canyon (NET 118) that lands in Quad 3 right now. That game was played in the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona — a 15-minute drive from the GCU campus. If that game is regarded as a road game rather than neutral, it would be a Quad 2 win for North Texas and push the team over-.500 (4-3) against the top two quadrants.
North Texas also earned a “neutral site” site win over UMass at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, just a 30-minute drive north from Amherst, though that game falls under Quad 3 regardless of road vs. neutral.
Recent historical comparisons for UNT
North Texas only faced one clear-cut NCAA Tournament team (Saint Mary’s) this season and lost by 30. That isn’t helping its case — but the Mean Green are not in uncharted territory.
Since the NET debuted in 2018-19, five teams have posted resumes comparable to the one North Texas has right now, including last year’s UNT squad:
It is worth noting that the seeding for these five teams falls in line with their quality metrics. Each of the three comparisons rated 61.7 or better across quality metrics danced, while the other two did not. Quality metrics are only one small part of the selection process, but the trend stands out.
Of the five teams shown above, this year’s North Texas team most closely resembles 2021 Drake. If the Mean Green win their final three regular-season games, they will be 3-0 in Quad 2 and 12-2 in Quad 3. They would still have fewer Quad 2 wins than that Drake team but would boast a better record across the middle two quadrants (15-2 vs. 11-2) with similar metrics.
Every year is different, but that Drake team making the tournament is a good sign for North Texas.
The overall outlook for North Texas
Historical comparisons paint the picture for North Texas. The Mean Green are firmly entrenched in the bubble conversation, and anything short of winning Conference USA’s automatic bid will have North Texas sweating out Selection Sunday.
The Mean Green cannot afford a landmine loss to end the regular season, so it must first and foremost take care of business in those games. Winning all three would give them another Quad 2 and Quad 3 win, while also pushing their overall record to 26-5. From there, it will be about rooting against other bubble teams such as North Carolina and West Virginia — teams that can still add signature wins.
The path to an at-large bid for UNT is murky. Aside from potentially winning an automatic bid, this team does not control its own destiny. The Mean Green can finish the season strong, root for other bubble teams to wilt, and hope the committee prioritizes and rewards their performance away from home — where North Texas has more wins than anyone else in the country.