Men’s basketball aims for turnaround in first year under Grant McCasland

Men’s basketball aims for turnaround in first year under Grant McCasland

Men’s basketball aims for turnaround in first year under Grant McCasland
November 08
21:31 2017

On a team where only one player has at least two seasons of Division I experience, there are plenty of question marks surrounding this year’s North Texas men’s basketball team.

The Mean Green have one exhibition game under their belt where they defeated Houston Baptist University 84-81 last week. A win against a team that has been at least .500 in back-to-back years was a step in the right direction and allowed the coaching staff to evaluate where the team stands before the season officially gets underway.

“It was hugely beneficial,” first-year head coach Grant McCasland said. “We need as much time on the court against other people. If you look at the people who played a majority of the minutes, you have three sophomores and two freshmen.”

The youth is encouraging for a new coaching staff as North Texas looks to begin the process of turning the corner on what was a miserable 2016 campaign. The exhibition game showed exactly what kind of product the McCasland’s squad is putting on the floor this year after cleaning house in the offseason.

The coaching staff has focused on improving the team’s spacing on the offensive side behind the addition of several new players who can knock down open threes with consistency. In the HBU scrimmage, the team went 8-of-19 from three, including a 4-for-7 outing from sophomore guard Roosevelt Smart.

The Mean Green shot just 32 percent from behind the 3-point line last year, proving players like Smart, freshman Umoja Gibson and junior Jorden Duffy will be welcomed additions to the lineup.

McCasland hopes this will significantly change the complexity of the offense, as sophomore point guard Ryan Woolridge should have cleaner lanes to drive. Opposing coaches will be more reluctant to clog the paint with shooters waiting at the ready on the perimeter.

“That’s definitely going to open up space to drive,” Woolridge said. “People will get more open shots and the bigs will be able to score the ball, so that’ll help a lot.”

As Woolridge mentioned, the Mean Green big men have looked more skilled so far in practices. Freshman Zach Simmons has a nice touch around the rim, junior Tope Arikawe is a physical rebounder and senior Shane Temara looks more comfortable than last season, especially on the 3-point line.

But with only three bigs in the regular rotation, there will be lineups where McCasland is forced to play a small-ball lineup with four guards – leaving players like sophomore star A.J. Lawson guarding opposing power forwards.

Against HBU, Lawson started as the Mean Green’s second-biggest player and grabbed nine rebounds in 33 minutes of play. Lawson showed his ability to score last season (11.4 ppg), but further proved his versatility on the boards in the exhibition.

“We can play big,” McCasland said. “We can put two of those guys on the court at the same time, especially with Shane’s ability to stretch the floor. But just with an emphasis on defensive pressure and trying to play more aggressive, we’re better doing that with [four guards]. We want to play faster.”

Playing faster as McCasland wants will be easier this season with Smart, Woolridge and Gibson as three capable ball-handling guards. McCasland has said numerous times how tough it is to consistently score against a half-court defense at the Division I level, so North Texas will look to run in transition often.

Even so, Woodridge, Lawson and the rest of the offense should be in better shape to make plays in the half court.

“In the last couple of years the assist rate hadn’t been real high,” McCasland said. “3-point percentage hadn’t been real high. Ryan Woolridge is as good as you can get in getting people involved and it’s been fun to see them embrace sharing the ball.”

While there will be noticeable improvements under McCasland, rebounding could again present a challenge for the Mean Green this year. With only three post players in the full-time rotation, Lawson will be relied on heavily to make an impact on the glass.

Arikawe and Simmons, two first-year Division I players, are the two most reliable rebounders on the team.

“Rebounding is probably going to be our toughest area,” McCasland said. “I don’t think we rebound very well.”

Defensively, on-ball pressure is McCasland’s biggest emphasis within the team as they focus on keeping people in front of them. A lack of rim protectors waiting in the paint will force North Texas to be more physical on the perimeter.

The Mean Green committed 28 personal fouls against HBU, giving up 34 free throw opportunities. It’s an early problem the team will have to improve on.

“We’ve got to guard the ball well,” McCasland said. “It’s a process to keep getting better at guarding the ball and having that intensity it requires and the discipline to not foul using your hands.”

With McCasland’s first season only days away from beginning, the shift in the culture and excitement around the program continues to grow in a short period of time.

As fans, students and alumni cautiously anticipate the start of the new basketball season, the men’s team is ready to play and answer the questions many Mean Green faithful have after a difficult 2016 campaign.

North Texas opens with Eureka College at 5 p.m. Friday at the Super Pit.

“We’re a work in progress [on defense], but we’re picking it up,” Woolridge said. “I’m very excited for this season. I’m ready to start playing.”

Featured Image: North Texas sophomore shooting guard Jorden Duffy dribbles up court during practice. Colin Mitchell

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men’s basketball.

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