Youthful Men's Basketball Ready For New Beginning
2017-18 Season Begins Friday Against Eureka College
|North Texas men's basketball vs. Eureka College|
|Date | Time||Friday, Nov. 10 | 5 p.m.|
|Location||Denton, TX | The Super Pit (10,500)|
|Stream||Conference USA TV ($)|
|Radio||MGRN - 88.1 KNTU-FM, 95.3 KHYI-FM - Dave Barnett (PxP), Hank Dickenson (Color)|
|Game Notes||North Texas | Eureka College|
DENTON – The North Texas men’s basketball team enter the 2017-18 season with one scholarship senior and will rely on underclassmen to help rebuild a program.
Head coach Grant McCasland is no stranger to turnarounds after a 10-win improvement at Arkansas State last season. McCasland knows it will be an uphill battle, having been picked to finish 11th in the Conference USA preseason poll.
The new-look Mean Green have been busy preparing for the rigors of the season that starts with a 13-game non-conference schedule. They open the campaign with four of their first five games at the Super Pit.
“The non-conference schedule is going to be tough,” A.J. Lawson said. “Hopefully it will show teams that we have been working hard and prove this is a different team.”
North Texas has a daunting non-conference road schedule with trips to Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, UT Arlington, San Diego and Georgetown before Christmas.
“I think it is extremely competitive with some significantly tough road games,” McCasland said. “Anytime you play true road games you’re going to find out a lot about your team. We are looking forward to really improving as we attack the non-conference.”
In the preseason, the team has been much-improved defensively, creating steals, diving on loose balls and being aggressive. Sophomores A.J. Lawson and Ryan Woolridge are known for their offensive abilities but have been pushed by McCasland to set the tone defensively.
Both players have improved in a short time under McCasland. Lawson has expanded his all-around game and Woolridge has developed a more consistent three-point shot.
“The area that you can see the most growth in a player is when their approach is consistent, and we’ve seen that move in a positive direction with A.J. and Ryan,” McCasland said. “They definitely have learned a different way to play the game and I know that has been challenging at times.”
“I believe I have improved my shot, free-throw percentage. I’m not just a drive-to-the-basket guy,” Lawson said. I feel I have an all-around game.”
“I have improved on my ability to read screens and manipulate the defense,” Woolridge said. “Also being able to shoot the ball on a wide-open three.”
McCasland’s young backcourt will be the focal point for opponents. They have both been challenged to not settle and to be an example for their teammates.
“Coach has helped me a lot especially maturing on the court,” Lawson said. “He keeps me focused mentally during games.”
“Coach and I have to have a great relationship on the court so we can be on the same page at all times,” Woolridge said. “We have grown a lot in the short time we have been together.”
With such a guard-heavy team, North Texas will utilize smaller lineups to create tough matchups on the offensive end. The Mean Green have played at times with four guards in the starting lineup in Woolridge, Lawson, Umjoa Gibson and Roosevelt Smart.
“With my game not being one-dimensional,” Lawson said. “I think it will help us a lot for me to play multiple positions. Being able to guard big guys and spread the floor will create matchup problems for other teams.”
That leaves newcomers Zachary Simmons and Tope Arikawe to rotate in as rim protectors. Simmons is athletic at 6-foot-9 and Arikawe is a junior college transfer that produced 10 double-doubles at Panola College last season.
“A lot of the newcomers have impressed me, honestly,” Woolridge said. “Zach rises to the challenge when he is pressed. We should have a good team this year.”
Gibson, a freshman guard from Waco, scored 19 points, including 17 in the first half, in an exhibition against Houston Baptist. Smart led the team with 20 points, three rebounds and four three-pointers. North Texas forced a late turnover to win their only exhibition, 84-81.
“We are definitely on the rise,” Woolridge said. “We executed some late-game situations in our exhibition and are coming together as a team.”
Another new face is junior college transfer Jorden Duffy, who should see significant time after working his way back from an injury. Duffy, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, averaged 19.4 points per game and hit 90 three-pointers at San Jacinto College. Duffy showed a glimpse of what is to come by winning the Mean Green Madness three-point competition.
“Even though he hasn’t practiced a lot, when he gets out there and competes you can tell he has a different maturity level to his game,” McCasland said. “He will help us dramatically, especially when we start playing conference games.”
In late December, the Conference USA season begins. The top-12 teams will qualify for the single-elimination conference tournament in Frisco with the top four teams receiving a bye into the quarterfinals. North Texas does not face the top four teams in the preseason poll more than once, and will play UTEP, UT San Antonio, Rice, Florida Atlantic and FIU twice.
North Texas will need to improve drastically on both ends of the floor if they want to finish in the top half of the league. Last season, the Mean Green were 10th in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense giving up 75.3 points per game.
“I feel like we are locked in as a team,” Woolridge said. “We are ready to compete and get after it. We will win more than eight games.”
McCasland is determined to change old habits and instill his winning mentality, which will take some time.
“We have focused on trying to establish our identity defensively,” McCasland said. We want to get better on that end in two ways. One would be giving maximum effort and the other would be the technical side of understanding the schemes. I think the effort is getting to the point where we are being more consistent.”
The Mean Green open the season against Eureka College at the Super Pit on Friday, Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.
“I am really excited about our whole team just improving, and am anxious to get started,” McCasland said.