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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 11 North Texas Mean Green

The Mean Green look to repeat in Conference USA behind their star point guard.

North Texas Athletics

2019-2020 Record: 20-11 (14-4), C-USA regular season champion
Key Returning Players: Javion Hamlet (G, Sr.), James Reese (G., Sr.), Thomas Bell (G/F, Sr.), Zachary Simmons (Sr., F), Jahmiah Simmons (F, Sr.), Jalen Jackson (G., Soph.)
Key Losses: Umoja Gibson (G, Jr. — transfer/Oklahoma), Deng Geu (G, Sr.), D.J. Draper (G, Sr.)
Key Newcomers: Mardrez McBride (G, Jr. — JuCo), Terrence Lewis II (F, Jr. — JuCo), Mykell Robinson (G, Fr.), Rubin Jones (G., Fr.)

North Texas played one of last season’s most thrilling games when the Mean Green toppled Western Kentucky in overtime on March 1 to lock up the C-USA regular season title. What the Mean Green didn’t — and couldn’t — know at the time was it would be the final highlight in a tremendous season.

UNT entered the the league tournament at The Star as the favorite, and seemed poised to go to its first NCAA Tournament since 2010 when the event was cancelled. Grant McCasland’s team had earned that status by flipping the script on what it had done in 2018-19. Unlike the year prior, last season’s Mean Green started slow and finished with a fury, going 16-4 from Dec. 21 onward.

JuCo transfer point guard Javion Hamlet was an instant star, taking the reins and helping engineer the 34th-most efficient offense in the country. A handful of other newcomers — like James Reese and Thomas Bell — added depth to a team that had wilted down the stretch in 2018-19, and had the Mean Green flying as the season came to a close. They’ll hope to build on that momentum heading into an unpredictable campaign.

Key Non-Conference Games

At present, a veteran Mean Green team gets cracks at three SEC opponents on the road: Arkansas (Nov. 28), Mississippi State (Dec. 4) and LSU (Dec. 19). Should those games hold, UNT has to hope that it’s experience combined with a strange environment could be the recipe for some impressive non-conference wins.

3 things to watch

What’s next for Javion Hamlet?

Just two short years after penning Hamlet, William Shakespeare released Othello. The Mean Green’s Hamlet will be looking to put together a similar encore this season. The senior point guard was stellar last year (14.6 PPG, 4.7 APG, 41.9 3P%), winning the C-USA Newcomer and Player of the Year awards.

Last year, Hamlet talked with Mid-Major Madness about his breakthrough role.

“We have a lot of great pieces,” Hamlet said. “Coach [McCasland] was saying, we needed someone to come in and lead the guys. I thank them for just embracing me, for embracing the new guy coming in.”

He’ll be counted on to lead the team yet again, and may have to shoulder a bit more of the scoring load, especially early. Umoja Gibson, the Mean’s Green second-leading scorer, transferred just up the road to Oklahoma, taking away Hamlet’s primary backcourt complement. Hamlet showed the ability to score from all three levels last year while at same time logging the best assist rate (33.4%) in C-USA. That should allow UNT to weather any initial drop off caused by Gibson’s departure.

Can UNT shore up its three-point defense?

One of the Mean Green’s few weaknesses in their championship campaign was a vulnerability deep. UNT posted C-USA’s worst three-point defense, allowing opponents to hit nearly 38 percent of their outside attempts (37.9 3P%). The Mean Green allowed the opposition to shoot 50 percent or better from deep in their last three losses, including its season-closing defeat to Charlotte.

The encouraging angle is that three-point defense can be fickle, and McCasland’s teams do not have a history of getting torched from deep. In fact, limiting opponents from the outside has been a strength of his first two teams at UNT and lone season at Arkansas State. It’s entirely possible that the team improves in that area, especially with athletes like Reese and Bell back on the perimeter.

Can the Mean Green find the minutes down low?

McCasland will have the ability to run out plenty of exciting, perimeter-oriented lineups alongside Hamlet. The versatility of Bell and a deep group of guards — which includes JuCo transfer Mardrez McBride — should space the floor and give the opposition fits, and mimics the type of lineups that produced such an effective offense a year ago.

Yet again, it appears forward Zachary Simmons will often be the lone traditional forward on the floor. The senior has started nearly 100 games and has consistently produced, pulling down 5.8 rebounds per game over his career and being a highly-efficient offensive option in the post when needed. UNT will be reliant on Simmons, particularly as two of the teams on its league schedule — Western Kentucky and UTEP — feature frontcourt stars in Charles Bassey and Bryson Williams, respectively. With Deng Geu gone, McCasland will look to senior Jahmiah Simmons, JuCo transfer Terrence Lewis II and possibly freshman wing Mykell Robinson to provide depth.

X-factor

Mardrez McBride

As commanding a player as Hamelt figures to be this season, there’s no avoiding that his primary running mate is gone with Gibson at Oklahoma. The shooting guard was the Mean Green’s only other double digit scorer, and gave Hamlet a tremendous floor spacer and release valve (14.5 PPG, 39.4 3P%). UNT’s plodding offense was incredibly effective last season, but in playing at one of the slowest paces in the country, was built around making the most of the looks that they were able to generate.

With possessions at a premium, it’s no small deal that the team’s most prolific shot maker outside of Hamlet is gone. In steps McBride, an exciting, quick-twitch guard that lit up the JuCo ranks by posting the third best three-point percentage in the NCJAA last season (53 3P%). His highlight videos also show a guard that thrives in transition, and he should benefit if he indeed steps into a primary role next to Hamlet in the back court. Jones, a prolific Houston prep scorer, could also be in the mix for big minutes, but in any event there are big shoes to fill, and McBride could get the first crack at them.