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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 21 North Texas Mean Green

The CBI Champions are ready for a bigger stage. Can Grant McCasland’s squad take CUSA by storm this season? North Texas might just have the perfect mix of play-making guards to do it.

NCAA Basketball: North Texas at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 20-18 (8-10 CUSA), CBI Champions
Key Returning Players: Roosevelt Smart (G, Jr.), Jorden Duffy (G, Sr.), Ryan Woolridge (G, Sr.), Umoja Gibson (G, RS Fr.), Zachary Simmons (F, So.)
Key Losses: A.J. Lawson, Shane Temara
Key Newcomers: Jahmiah Simmons (transfer from Arkansas State), Larry Wise (3-star, Rivals), Mark Tikhonenko (NR), Shakeem Alcindor (NR)

Grant McCasland’s first season in Denton, Texas ended on a high note. The Mean Green lost six of their last seven Conference USA games and were knocked out in the first round of the CUSA postseason tournament. But then North Texas accepted a bid into the CBI and stormed through the tournament, topping San Francisco in a three-game championship series. Roosevelt Smart and Jorden Duffy emerged as bonafide ballers in the tournament, Ryan Woolridge established himself as one of CUSA’s top point guards by breaking North Texas’ single season assist record, and other role players settled in throughout the year.

North Texas is ready for a second season encore under McCasland. Many key contributors return and their sights are set high. Can this team surprise a crowded and competitive CUSA this year and win a bid into the NCAA tournament? Maybe.

Let’s be honest — we’re all rooting for a scenario that puts Mean Joe Greene in courtside seats at March Madness, right? Who’s going to tell him to pour his Coca-Cola into one of those NCAA-approved Powerade cups? That’s right. No one.

With an arsenal of speedy and talented guards, McCasland’s Mean Green might just have the horses to get North Texas back in the NCAA tournament, an arena it hasn’t been in since 2010.

Key Non-Conference Games

With Marshall, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion (all in the KenPom preseason top 105), CUSA has a sliver of potential to be a multi-bid league for the NCAA tournament, but the way in is to win the conference, obviously. Still, if North Texas falls short of that, it would want to boost its resume with wins in these games.

Nov. 11 at Hawaii
Nov. 24 vs. Saint Peter’s
Nov. 27 at Oklahoma
Dec. 5 at Indiana State
Dec. 8 vs. UT Arlington
Dec. 18 at New Mexico

Three Things to Watch

So… Roosevelt Smart.

College basketball fans should get familiar with this name. Smart led North Texas in scoring last season with 19.5 points per-game, while also averaging an assist and 4.2 rebounds per contest too. While he can score at the rim, where Smart is really electric is from three-point range. A season ago he shot 38 percent from behind the arc, flushing 133 three-pointers, which was third best among all college shooters, just behind Kendrick Nunn and Fletcher Magee.

A native of Chicago, Smart opted for the JUCO route out of high school, spending a season at New Mexico Junior College. He led the team in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage, and became one of the top JUCO players in the nation. 247Sports tabbed him as one of the 50 top JUCO recruits in 2017. In his first season in Denton, he broke the school’s single season scoring record with 742 points. In the CBI, he earned the tournament’s MVP honors, averaging 23 points over six games.

With a sweet stroke and dynamic ball-handling abilities, the 6-foot-3 Smart is primed for another good season with North Texas. He’ll have a lot of say in how far the Mean Green go this season.

What can Jahmiah Simmons provide?

After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Simmons is eligible to play for the Mean Green. Simmons, a native of the Virgin Islands, played for McCasland at Arkansas State and followed him to Denton.

As a freshman at Arkansas State, Simmons played in 25 games and started nine, averaging 6.4 points and five rebounds per game. In Sun Belt play, Simmons led the team in blocks with 19.

While he might be listed at just 6-foot-4, it’s clear that Simmons has a knack for rebounding and shot blocking. Simmons could fill the void left by Shane Temera, who averaged 4.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game last season. Rim protection was an area that North Texas wasn’t great at last year, averaging just 2.72 blocks per-game, good enough for 268th in the nation.

Umoja Gibson is back

If you watched North Texas’ first two games of the season last year, you remember Gibson. A 6-foot-1 guard, Gibson worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman and did a little bit of everything, tallying 19 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals in the season opener. In the second game of the season, against Nebraska, Gibson’s versatile play continued as he accumulated two rebounds, two assists, a steal and two points in the first 15 minutes.

And then, things went horribly wrong. Gibson broke his leg and missed the rest of the season. Luckily, North Texas applied for and received a medical redshirt for him.

All signs point to the Waco native being healthy this season. He was ranked as one of the top players in Texas coming out of high school. If he can replicate his stellar play from last season’s small sample size and stretch it over the course of the season, that would be a very good thing for the Mean Green.

X Factor

Jorden Duffy

Another JUCO find for McCasland and his staff at North Texas, Duffy showed flashes of great play last season, but really broke out in the CBI tournament when he was given more minutes. The 6-foot-1 guard from Maryland’s Eastern Shore averaged 17.8 points over six games in the CBI, providing North Texas with a spark when it needed it, while also complimenting the play of Smart and Woolridge.

According to Verbal Commits, Duffy signed with North Texas over offers from WKU, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, Stephen F. Austin, James Madison, FIU and several others. He’s a guard who has a versatile game, with the hops to finish over taller defenders and the ability to catch and shoot quickly from outside. He also averaged 5.8 rebounds and two assists per-game in the CBI.

There’s no question that Duffy has the talent, but what North Texas needs out of him is consistency. If he can stay healthy and provide that, the Mean Green will be very difficult to contain for opposing defenses. Based on a quote from Duffy that North Texas tweeted out, he seems ready to take on any challenge this season.