North Texas Are Ready to Fight For Another March Upset


The Super Pit, centered in Denton, Texas, used to be a sad, lifeless place. Although its resident, the North Texas Mean Green, won a handful of conference titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament three times, it was not enough. What should have been an exciting, eccentric side was overshadowed by its more prestigious Texan contemporaries.
It is a rising power thanks to its stingy defense. Conference-USA opponents can verify North Texas' dominance on the defensive end. With Grant McCasland at its helm, it eyes an automatic bid by taking its second-straight conference title.
But North Texas knows it needs another successful season to vault into mainstream news. A season similar to their C-USA-winning season will put North Texas on the map. 
If you visit the Super Pit, you can tell its tenants are tough to beat. The Super Pit, oval-shaped and intimating, resembles a bullring. It is a bit ironic because you know that the Mean Green is a team hard to wrangle. Taking the phrase Defense wins championships close to heart, they hold their opponents to a D1-best 55.3 points per game. "We are very committed to it as a team," McCasland told reporters about their defensive proficiency. That, coupled with accurate shots from range, explains their 42nd place on KenPom
North Texas deserves their high ranking, after all. Results like a 70-63 win over Middle Tennessee, a 67-44 victory against Rice, and a 54-51 nailbiter at Florida Atlantic reaffirm their conference dominance. So why is UNT not on power rankings? It is because of the lack of good competition they face. 
They are 1-1 against Q1 teams, having lost to Kansas but won against UAB. They are 5-2 against Q2 enemies and 12-1 against Q3 and Q4 foes. Sure, their record may be astounding, but it is just because they play against objectively inferior opposition.
That may sting when Selection Sunday comes. Bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Andy Katz placed the Mean Green in the #12-spot. But the external doubts and worries all disintegrate when entering the Super Pit, like dust in a bullring. The Mean Green are zeroed in on their mission to hoist the C-USA trophy once more. But what did North Texas, also known as UNT, do to earn its first conference title?
Last season, they put their offense and scrappy defense to work. North Texas earned a 13-9 (9-5 C-USA) record. But they were frustrated by teams like UAB and Marshall, and there was not a lot of hope entering the postseason. It seemed like the matadors that frequented North Texas’ bullrings would triumph yet again.
Luckily for UNT, C-USA is split between an eastern and a western division. North Texas won the third-place seed in the stacked western division. They beat their rivals Middle Tennessee by twenty and narrowly beat Old Dominion in the quarterfinals. Led by now G-League guard Javion Hamlet, they triumphed over Louisiana Tech in the semifinals. Hamlet scored twenty points against Western Kentucky in the conference finals to send UNT to March Madness. 
The Mean Green erupted in joy after overtime, storming the court with smiles across their faces. Social media erupted as well. The Mean Green advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eleven years. 
"It took a bigger level of belief from everyone to put ourselves in this position," McCasland told reporters. That belief guided them to a significant point in North Texas’ basketball history. 
They upset Purdue, beating them 78-69. 
"They shot the ball well and they were very stingy. They made a point of taking us out of what we wanted to do, especially with post-ups to start the game,” Purdue coach Matt Painter told Sports Illustrated. Barring their ugly loss to Villanova, North Texas was remarkable throughout 2020 and 2021. They dominated the C-USA by knocking off its best teams while making a name for itself through its defense. Even better, they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
North Texas will need to rely on its frustrating defense to secure the C-USA’s (probably) only tournament bid. “If you can’t defend, you can’t play here,” guard JJ Murray told the Dallas Morning News. The Mean Green’s defense allows them to control the tempo in games.
North Texas’ defense hinges on a central element: limiting ball movement. Murray and Tylor Perry discourage passes around the perimeter with their high steal per game rates, and they force tough shots from their guards.
Their kryptonite is defending in the frontcourt. The Mean Green are one of the shortest teams in D1, and they concede an average amount of two-point shots. If someone like EJ Liddell, Paolo Banchero, or Oscar Tshiebwe got the ball, it would cause some problems. 
But for most of their season, the Mean Green succeeded in preventing easy shots. It allows them to slow the game down to one of the slowest tempos in college basketball. 
When they can control the tempo, they knock down shots with ease. "The Mean Green are offensively efficient because of how many shooting threats dot the perimeter," analyst Lukas Harkins wrote. 
The Mean Green are back to contend for another C-USA title, looking to position itself favorably. The C-USA, typically dominated by Western Kentucky and UTEP, will see a new generation of programs to challenge for the title.
Other than North Texas, the best example of this is a resurgent Alabama-Birmingham side that is a problem to the Mean Green. UAB lost 58-57 to North Texas but won 69-63 (in North Texas’ only conference loss) earlier in the year. Their offense is among the best in D1, as KenPom ranks them 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency. UAB scores the eleventh-most points per game out of all D1 schools. They are pretty fast, can defend well, and are typically a pest in the frontcourt. Should these two teams meet in the conference tournament, it will be must-watch television.
Another team to watch is Middle Tennessee, who are 10-3 in conference competition. Josh Jefferson’s 15.1 points per game lead Middle Tennessee in scoring and leadership. Jefferson and Middle Tennesee have an above-average offense and an adequate defense. Things are going well for Middle Tennessee if you ignore their loss to North Texas. Although it seems North Texas can repeat their 70-63 result, they should be wary of the fact that the Blue Raiders are still a tricky opponent to figure out.
But all those teams are still a bit worse than UNT. On February 9, their odds of winning the C-USA were +110, but the odds probably changed after they narrowly beat UAB 58-57. 
Yet coach McCasland and his players still know the season is not over yet. "It’s just about believing you can find a way to win in any game. No matter the situation, no matter how many points you're down, it's moving forward. It's not being passive," he urged. 
The Mean Green will never take their foot off the gas. That is how they sent Purdue packing last year, and it is why North Texas is first in their conference.
Fans of the Mean Green will chant from the arena as North Texas charges head-first, with lights-out shooting and tenacious defense at its side, at its next opponent. Like it always does.