As North Texas prepared for its CBI opener at South Dakota, Grant McCasland had a problem.
The Mean Green were limping when they accepted the tournament invite, having lost seven of their last eight games. McCasland had a dynamic, slashing playmaker in sophomore point guard Ryan Woolridge but the court had shrunk around him. UNT had shot just 28.3 percent from three in the previous four games, and McCasland needed to create space for his lead guard.
As the morning shoot around unfolded, junior guard Michael Miller missed shot after shot. McCasland couldn’t take his eyes off of him.
“I saw him staring at me and I was thinking, ‘what’s going on?’” Miller said.
What was going on was that McCasland had come up with an idea to fix his team’s sagging offense. The first-year UNT coach called over Jon Trilli, his Director of Basketball Operations, and bounced the idea of him.
It was out there.
Miller, who had made just three of his 23 three-point attempts, would be given the green light from deep against a tough Coyotes’ defense. And he’d have to shoot them with his right hand, which for most players would go unsaid. Except Miller was a left-handed shooter.
Miller was told to switch to his normally non-dominant hand the rest of the shootaround. He immediately made six shots in a row, missed one and then made four more in succession. That’s when McCasland called him over.
“I told Mike, ‘here’s the deal: I’m going to start you tonight and I want you to shoot eight three pointers and I don’t care if you make them,’” McCasland said.
Miller didn’t hit the quota, but it paid off. That night, he scored 19 points and went 4-5 from three, more than doubling his season output from distance. It helped the Mean Green knock off a 26-win South Dakota team, and started them on the path to a CBI championship.
Making a bold move
Telling Miller to switch shooting hands didn’t come from a fever dream.
The junior had started shooting free throws right handed while at Shawnee Community College, and could hit devastating 15-foot floaters with his right hand. The rest of the time he shot left handed and, according to McCasland, wasn’t giving himself a chance.
“His left-handed shooting stroke is flatter and and he torques his body,” McCasland said. “But since he conditioned himself to shoot free throws right handed, he made that super efficient. Mechanically, he taught himself to shoot right handed very well.”
Switching hands permanently was something Miller planned to toy with over the offseason. He said it surprised him that his coach would order such a massive change ahead of a game with elimination on the table. But it didn’t take Miller long to get comfortable with the new set up.
Less than four minutes into the game, he hoisted a three that he said felt like he had shot with both hands. He had no idea whether it would go in or not. It did, and gave the Mean Green their first lead of the night. On the next possession, Miller took a pass from Roosevelt Smart outside the three-point line, took one size-up dribble and shot the ball.
“We were supposed to run a play and I broke it off,” he said. “That second shot I shot was when I knew, ‘ah yeah, it’s over.’”
It didn’t turn out to be a flicker. Miller averaged 27 minutes per game during the Mean Green’s six-game run through the CBI, after having fallen out of the rotation late in the season. He had played just 24 minutes total over the final nine games of the regular season. With the new shooting stroke, Miller went 8-19 from three, shot 53.4 percent overall and averaged 10.3 points per game (after averaging 1.9 points per game coming into the tournament).
It was the support UNT needed for Woolridge and Smart, and came at a perfect time.
Better late than never
Tommy Lloyd knows a thing or two about basketball.
The longtime Gonzaga assistant has been on Mark Few’s staff since 2000, and has brought in a parade of stars as the Zags’ primary international recruiter. So when McCasland told his good friend about Miller and the left to right switch, Lloyd had one reaction.
“He said, ‘how dumb are you it took you all season to figure that out?’” McClasland said.
It wasn’t as if the thought hadn’t crossed McCasland’s mind. He had been impressed by Miller’s right-handed free throw mechanics, but as a general matter was hesitant to mess with a player’s shot during the middle of the season. The prior offseason hadn’t offered much chance to work on the shot either.
Miller was coming off of knee surgery, so McCasland and his staff didn’t get to see that much of him on the court. They had other priorities too. After engineering a resurgent 20-12 season as a first year coach at Arkansas Sate in 2016-17, he made the leap to North Texas. For the second straight offseason, McCasland’s main focus was laying the foundation for his program.
But as he got to know Miller, and was in need of a spark, he decided to roll the dice in the CBI. Not only did it help spur the Mean Green’s championship run, it flipped Miller’s own season.
Salvaging a season
Miller’s face didn’t light up when the team was asked about playing in the CBI.
The Mean Green had finished off a solid regular season. In early February they sat at 7-4 in CUSA, and 14-10 overall, which was a long way from the year before when they’d lost 17 of their last 19 games. It was another first-year success story for McCasland, but Miller hadn’t been a big part of it.
The JuCo guard got regular playing time during the season’s first month, but that had tailed off beginning in December. He played sporadically from there on, and never found his shot, entering the CBI shooting just 13 percent from three.
So when the prospect of more games popped up, Miller wasn’t eager to prolong a frustrating season.
“They asked us if we wanted to play, and I was like ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “I had already bought my ticket for Spring Break to go home. I didn’t know if it’d be worth it. I wouldn’t play, wouldn’t get that opportunity to play.”
Instead, McCasland put him in the starting lineup (for the first time) for the South Dakota game, gave him free reign with his off-hand and ran plays to get him shots. At first Miller thought it was a joke. But McCasland said Miller approached it with confidence, and told fellow guard Jorden Duffy that UNT would win the tournament shortly before the South Dakota game.
The trick now is maintaining momentum as the switch fades from novelty to regularity. Miller said footwork has been the biggest challenge, as he’ll still catch himself shooting with his left foot in front.
“I’ve gotten used to it but at the same time, it’s something I’ve had to work on,” said Miller.
Both UNT and Miller enter the offseason hoping those extra six games, and one seemingly impossible change, lead to bigger and better things next year.