After the firing of former North Texas men’s basketball coach Tony Benford on March 5, 2017, Zachary Simmons was placed in a difficult situation. After finishing his senior season averaging 16 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks at Cedar Hills High, he had intentions to commit and play college basketball at North Texas. Having already been recruited by Benford, he had no idea who was going to be helming the men’s basketball program for North Texas, raising question marks around his plan to play for the Mean Green.
Eight days after Benford’s firing, North Texas brought on Grant McCasland, who had been long-time friends with Simmon’s high school coach. Simmons was the first player to be recruited by the newly hired head coach and was ensured a future with the Mean Green.
“It was a little difficult after the old coach got fired, I wasn’t sure about my future here,” Simmons said. “I was leaning towards getting my release and trying to look for other opportunities but [McCasland] came and told me that they were going to change a lot about this program. They had a lot of winning in their history and I just wanted to be a part of something where I would have a significant part in going in another direction.”
In Simmons’ freshman season, McCasland asked a lot from him. He played in all but one of the teams 38 games and was given the starting nod in 29 of them. One of the things McCasland made an effort to help Simmons with was his body and how to strengthen it in fear of attrition. This would help further prevent Simmons from sustaining injuries considering his existing injury history.
“I think that’s been the idea all along was to get him in shape physically where he can endure what’s required of him for us to be successful,” McCasland said. “Honestly, early on it was trying to transform his body to where he physically could withstand that. He had some previous injuries but really it was just about how good of shape we could get him in.”
Simmons quickly established himself as one of the team’s sources for rebounds as he ended his first season with 191 rebounds and averaged 5.2 rebounds per game. He averaged 20.7 minutes of playing time and 6.5 points per game as well as leading the team in field goal percentage (66.2) after shooting 102-for-154 from the floor.
“Not many freshmen are required to do what we required [Simmons] to do,” McCasland said. “That’s where mentally he’s tough, that’s where I love Zach because he’s fought through some things not only physically but mentally to get himself on the floor but the biggest thing has been getting his body in shape and he’s committed to that.”
North Texas ended the 2017-18 season as College Basketball Invitational champions in Simmons’ as and McCaslands first season with the team. Through the six-game stretch in the CBI, he was listed as a first stringer and averaged a double-double (10 points and 10.8 rebounds). His 47 defensive rebounds and 65 total rebounds in the CBI were the second-most in both stat categories in CBI tournament history.
In his sophomore year, Simmons saw an uptick in playing time as he averaged 10.2 points and 27.1 minutes per game and was the only player to start all 33 games. He became the primary source of rebounding after finishing the season with 232 rebounds (seven rebounds per game). North Texas’ season ended at the hands of Western Kentucky in the Conference USA Tournament after losing in the quarterfinals 67-51 on March 14, 2019.
The 6-foot-10-inch forward now enters his junior year as a player who has been handed a bigger responsibility of being one of the leaders this season. In McCasland’s eyes, he views Simmons as a player who’s leadership qualities can be impactful on and off the court.
“[Simmons] is committed and you can tell he’s committed, not just in practice sessions but off the floor, it comes to how do you help other guys recognize what winning looks like,” McCasland said. “Zach’s not only a good basketball player but he’s good with people. He’s found ways to hold people accountable without being condescending.”
In the offseason, Simmons lauded sophomore forward Shakeem Alcindor for his improvement and the work he had put in in preparation for the 2019-20 season. Alcindor made appearances in four games last season and was taken under Simmons’ wing this offseason when it came to outside workouts and basketball drills.
“That’s my guy,” Alcindor said. “He helped me through a lot of things and with his experience it’s helped me through drills and everything. Even outside of practice he’ll call me up to get workouts in, he’s a great teammate.”
When it comes to practice, Simmons has been known to galvanize his teammates towards a productive day in practice. Alcindor mentioned that whether Simmons is on the sideline or on the court with his teammates, he is always talking back and forth to other players.
“[Simmons] has walked out to practice and said to some of our guys, ‘I’m going to whip your tail today,’” McCasland said. “Which is good because it’s not just about Zach surviving a practice, now it’s about how do you compete hard enough where other people have to raise their level of play too. There’s an expectation you can see that he has for our teammates and not just for himself.”
Featured Image: Junior forward Zachary Simmons shoots a free throw after a flagrant foul from an Oklahoma Christian player on Nov. 5, 2019. Image by Jordan Collard