North Texas basketball is in the midst of an excellent stretch. Could another NCAA Tournament berth be on the horizon?
The modern 64-team NCAA Tournament era began in 1985. Over the first 33 years of that format, North Texas basketball experienced only the occasional boom. The Mean Green made three Big Dance appearances while netting at least 18 wins in only six seasons, all of which were posted by former head coach Johnny Jones (who left for LSU). The program scuffled for the five years post-Jones but has now found another star on the sidelines: Grant McCasland.
The former Baylor player and assistant took over the top job in Denton after two seasons as the head coach at Arkansas State. He has instantly made his impact felt, leading the Mean Green to 18-plus wins in each of his first four seasons at the helm (79-51 overall record). He also notched an NCAA Tournament victory last year. The 2021-22 season is his fifth walking the sidelines and it might be his best yet.
North Texas has leaped out to a 17-4 (10-1 CUSA) overall start and that record does not tell the full story of the campaign. The Mean Green started the year slow, losing three of their first four games against Division I competition. From that point forward, though, it is hard to find much to complain about regarding Coach McCasland and Co. while winning 15 of their last 16 games.
The Mean Green have emerged as one of the frontrunners to win the CUSA with one month left to play before the postseason. There is even some possible at-large buzz growing. How have they made this leap into the national spotlight as one of the best mid-majors in the country? There is no easy way to answer that question, but UNT’s ability to assert its slow tempo for every game, superb offensive balance, and rock-solid defense lead the way.
North Texas grinds out games
Most teams praised for being “tempo-setters” are those that play at remarkably fast paces; Gonzaga and Alabama, for example, have both thrived under that method. However, there are plenty of programs that have been extremely successful doing the exact opposite: preaching slow-tempo, high-efficiency offenses, and stringent defenses. The most prevalent examples of teams that have been successful at glacial tempos are Virginia and Villanova.
North Texas fits in the latter category and is asserting its tempo better than just about anyone in the country this season. The Mean Green rank as the absolute slowest offensive unit in the country (21.1 seconds per possession) and similarly slow things down defensively. They thus rank 357th of 358 teams in KenPom adjusted tempo statistic. This tempo takes a lot of their opponents out of their usual rhythm, and UNT is comfortable grinding out games.
The Mean Green are deliberate offensively and their sets often lead to quality looks, especially from 3-point range. With the low-scoring nature of many of their contests, 3-point shots feel like daggers whenever they drop. UNT uses this to its advantage by exerting its style of play on both ends of the floor.
The Mean Green play slow, bury a high rate of threes on offense, and defend the perimeter on the other end better than just about anyone:
Perhaps the only negative mark on UNT’s statistical profile is poor free-throw shooting. The Mean Green are shooting 67.1 percent from the charity stripe for the season, a mark that ranks 306th in the entire nation. Considering they rank in the top 50 for free throw attempt rate for the year, they are leaving a fair number of points off the board due to poor foul shooting.
Tylor Perry’s Sixth Man Masterclass
When it comes down to closing out games, though, Coach McCasland can turn to his ace in the hole: Tylor Perry. The JUCO transfer is shooting nearly 90 percent (70-for-79) at the foul line this season and has been the go-to player in the clutch. Not only is he an excellent free throw shooter but he also takes care of the ball remarkably well. He is one of only 15 players in the country with an assist rate of over 20 percent and a turnover rate under 12.5 percent.
Quality free-throw shooting and ball security can go a long way in winning close games. Perry does both exceedingly well at the lead guard spot for UNT, and that has been evident in their biggest wins of the year.
Perry is a proven winner and has been a superb addition to North Texas this season. The Mean Green lost star Javion Hamlet to graduation this offseason, but Perry has helped the program avoid missing a beat. North Texas associate head coach was highly complimentary of his lead guard during an interview with Heat Check CBB on All-Access Network:
“He’s fit right in. He won a national championship in junior college, has played with a lot of good players, plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he knows that the most important thing to him is to win. He has an infectious personality and is a connector of people. He’s an easy guy to play with and to coach. He came in already knowing how to win, wanting to win, wanting to be coached, and wanting to improve. Those things have allowed him to have success.”
Perry leads the Mean Green in points (13.6) and steals (1.3) per game all while coming off the bench. Coach McCasland only runs a seven-man rotation and Perry is right in the thick of it. He might be a tad undersized at 5-11, but it hasn’t phased him. Perry was a star in JUCO and he is a star in the CUSA. Big-time players make big-time plays, regardless of size.
He might not be among the starters but he is on the floor in crunch time when it matters most — and for good reason:
Balance leads the offense
Perry might lead the team in scoring, but North Texas is an offensive unit built on balance. The Mean Green do not have to rely on a star player to go out and score 20 points in order to beat a quality team. Their seven-man rotation features five players averaging at least eight points per game and any one of them could go off on a given night.
KenPom’s Game MVP award winners for North Texas this season summarize the team’s balance. Perry leads the way with eight such awards, but four of the other five core rotation members have earned at least one honor. Thomas Bell, for instance, is a stead senior that leads the team in assists per game as a 6-6 forward; his versatility is a huge part of UNT’s success.
Balance is not just present in the box scores and overall points scored. The Mean Green are as efficient as they are offensively (77th in eFG%) because of how many viable shooting threats dot the perimeter. Coach McCasland preaches a 3-point-oriented offense that ranks 77th nationally in attempt rate from beyond the arc. That type of system cannot be successful without a bevy of shooters capable of knocking down the open looks.
McBride and Perry are clearly UNT’s best perimeter threats, but the others cannot be left open, either. Even Aaron Scott and Abou Ousmane, who have combined for only six made threes this season, have been above national average on “Far 2s” this season. Defenses always have to stay home on the Mean Green’s shooters, or games will get out of hand quickly.
The Mean Green are shooting a blistering 43.1 percent from 3-point range since the beginning of CUSA play. That incredible efficiency is not sustainable, but they have proven to be an elite perimeter shooting team throughout the year. North Texas is 13-1 when it shoots over 32 percent from three for the season.
Considering UNT also ranks 101st nationally in offensive rebounding rate (best in CUSA play), the team acquires plenty of second-chance opportunities as well. The frontcourt trio of Bell, Ousmane, and Scott all rank in the top 320 nationally in individual offensive rebounding rate.
Stingy defense limits the three
North Texas leads the CUSA in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate, free throw attempt rate, and 3-point percentage since the beginning of conference play. Despite how well the Mean Green have performed on that end of the floor, they have been even better defensively and that has been the case all season long. UNT holds the best intra-conference defensive efficiency and ranks 41st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency for the full season.
While there is some degree of luck associated with UNT’s defensive numbers (allowing the 30th-lowest free-throw percentage in the country, a statistic that is out of a defense’s control), the team is performing admirably across the board. The Mean Green rank in the top 100 in effective field goal percentage surrendered, turnover rate forced and defensive rebounding rate.
Perhaps most notably, they shut down the perimeter better than just about anyone in the country. They stifle ball movement extremely well (7th-lowest assist rate allowed to opponents in the country) with the backcourt duo of Tylor Perry and JJ Murray – both of whom exhibit steal rates greater than 3 percent – and limit 3-point attempts.
North Texas is holding opponents to the 15th-lowest 3-point attempt rate in the country. When opponents are able to get those shots off, they are not clean looks either; they are only making 29.3 percent of threes against UNT (22nd-best defensive rate).
Abou Ousmane is as important as they come
UNT’s perimeter-oriented defensive scheme is working remarkably well this season. The Mean Green are effectively forcing turnovers and tough shots out of their competition. If they make the NCAA Tournament, though, they will likely face a high-major opponent with lots of size in the frontcourt. A lack of size is where a lot of defensive-oriented mid-majors struggle when tasked with facing a high-rated opponent. This is where sophomore big man Abou Ousmane could make his mark for the Mean Green.
Ousmane stands at 6-10 and 230 pounds and has started every game for North Texas so far this season. He brings plenty of size to the floor and helps anchor the paint on both ends of the floor. Ousmane is particularly impactful with his rim protection and rebounding; he ranks in the top 250 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates, as well as block rate.
He is also a reliable finisher inside when defenses overcommit to UNT’s backcourt offensively. North Texas ranks just 314th nationally in average height (76.0”) this season. When Ousmane is on the bench, the Mean Green turn to small-ball lineups with either Scott (6-7) or Bell (6-6) as their “center.” Ousmane is the lone true “size” in the rotation and that makes him an invaluable part of the rotation.
Ousmane is a massively improved player compared to last season. He adds a degree of size on both ends of the floor that was previously missing. He is averaging 10.0 points per game for the season in addition to his defensive presence.
What is the ceiling for UNT?
Evaluating the “ceiling” of a mid-major team is a bit tricky when it comes to projecting potential success in March. While North Texas has a chance at an at-large bid, that is a slim possibility. It is more likely that the Mean Green will need to win the CUSA Tournament in order to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. If they are able to make that push into college basketball’s most prestigious postseason tournament, do not be surprised if they are a popular upset pick.
Coach McCasland already proved capable of leading an upset in the Big Dance last season, and his team might be even better this time around. North Texas is experienced, excellent on both ends of the floor, and underrated by efficiency metrics.
The Mean Green sat at No. 119 on KenPom after its first three weeks of the season. Now, at No. 61, this is a team that has clearly improved and found its recipe for success. If you’re looking for a potential Cinderella to keep your eye on over the final month of the season, search no further than North Texas.
The Mean Green might not be a high-octane offensive unit that can put up points in a hurry, but they will make every game a grinder. When it gets down to crunch time, they feature a bevy of shooters and their defense locks up the perimeter better than any other.
North Texas already notched an NCAA Tournament upset victory last season; might another be on the way this year? Coach McCasland features a veteran-laden, seven-man core rotation that knows what it takes to win.
Check out the full interview with Ross Hodges on All-Access Network right here: