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Growing momentum: North Texas men’s basketball looks to build on past successes

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The North Texas men’s basketball team last season took the Conference USA regular-season title for the first time since 1989, later pushing for an entry into the NCAA tournament until the conference tournament was canceled. North Texas was the No. 1 seed in the tournament expecting to play the No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, who they defeated 81-58 earlier in the season.

Reloading a team with eight players and signing the No. 1 recruiting class within C-USA gives head coach Grant McCasland confidence the upcoming season will be much like the previous.

“We have a great group of upperclassmen, especially with the six seniors,” McCasland said. “This is going to be a big year for us with a lot of expectations and especially with the new guys we brought in who are going to make a big impact.”

The team returns two seniors from last year’s campaign who played a key role in the offense with guard Javion Hamlet and forward Zachary Simmons.

Hamlet earned C-USA Player of the Year as a newcomer from Northwest Florida State College, alongside McCasland winning the C-USA Coach of the Year.

In his first season with the Mean Green during league play, Hamlet led the conference in assists (95), assists per game (5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7), free throw percentage (88.3) and fourth in scoring (17.9 points-per-game). Hamlet’s 147 total assists from 2020 rank sixth all-time in a single season in North Texas’ program history.

He was named to the Lindy’s Sports College Basketball Magazine Preseason First Team All-Conference team for the 2020-21 season.

“The coaching staff and my teammates believed in me the whole way, so it made my job easier,” Hamlet said. “My teammates kept carrying me to keep on going and that’s what I did. Point guards are judged by winning, so I don’t worry about the awards or any of that because I want to win championships and do things as a team that the program has never done before.”

Simmons enters his senior season following 2019-20 where he played and started all 31 games for North Texas, leading the team with a field goal percentage of 63.4. He averaged 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The 6-foot-10 forward is the first player in program history to have three seasons with total field goal percentages of 60 percent or more.

“[Simmons] believed in us and the process before anyone else did,” associate head coach Ross Hodge said. “He’s been the foundation for everything that’s happened over the last three years and all the success we have moving forward. He was the groundwork and he learned how to affect the game without scoring. Towards the end of the season last year he was one of our best passers and that added a whole new level to his game and dimension to our team with the way our opponents prepared for us.”

In his three seasons with North Texas, he’s played in 101 of the 102 total games and started in 93. His freshman season he led the team in field goal percentage at 66.2 percent, setting a single-season freshman record for field goal percentage in a single season. The Mean Green in the 2017-18 campaign won the postseason College Basketball Invitational tournament over San Francisco in an 88-77 victory.

Since beginning his career with North Texas the same year as McCasland, Simmons says he’s grown and learned more about the game from the coaching staff, hoping to leave North Texas on a high note.

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“There’s been a lot of growth and maturing,” Simmons said. “The biggest thing was trusting the coaches from the beginning and believing in them that we could accomplish all this. Obviously, I want to win another conference championship and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. But also I want to be a good teammate and share my knowledge with the young guys so they can keep it going.”

Following the conclusion of the season, McCasland signed the No. 1 recruiting class in C-USA and No. 48 in the nation, according to Rivals.

Three high school seniors signed with North Texas including Rubin Jones (Yates High School, Texas), forwards Mykell Robinson (Sunrise Christian Academy, Texas) and Abou Ousmane (Scotland Performance Institute, N.Y.). North Texas signed two junior college transfers forward Terence Lewis (New Mexico Junior College) and guard Mardrez McBride (University of South Carolina Salkehatchie).

Rivals listed all five signees as 3-star recruits.

“During the summer we identified [Jones] as a guy who just fit us,” McCasland said. “He’s got an awesome game that he brings to the court. [Ousmane and Robinson] are two freshmen that really have a ton of potential. A guy who I see stepping up for us right away is [Lewis]. He’s a jack of all trades and just a great all-around basketball player.”

When McCasland was in the process of recruiting the five players to come to North Texas, the current players quickly established a relationship with the recruits and accepted them into the program immediately.

“The relationships are honestly a big part of having the ability to get the guys we wanted,” McCasland said. “What’s unique about this team is I’ve never been a part of a group that’s wanted to be invested in the recruiting of the ones we’ve brought in as much as the guys who were on the [current] roster.”

North Texas men’s basketball departed four players from last year’s team, including the transferring of all-conference guard Umoja Gibson to Oklahoma. To repeat as conference champions, Hamlet says making the new players feel at home is what can help the team bring back the C-USA title.

“You have to focus every single day and have the desire to get better each day along with making the new guys feel comfortable,” Hamlet said. “To be a great leader it takes growth and patience but leading this group to another conference championship is what I want.”

As of Monday, Oct. 26, C-USA reformatted the conference schedule with North Texas men’s basketball opening league play against Alabama-Birmingham on Thursday, Dec. 31. The team’s non-conference schedule is currently being processed and will be announced on a later date in the near future.

Featured Image: The Mean Green celebrate their C-USA title win against Western Kentucky on Mar. 1, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas

Article Originally Published by Preston Rios on North Texas Daily

Source: North Texas Daily

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