It must have been deja vu for Javion Hamlet.
Last Saturday, for the second time this season, North Texas was locked in a down-to-the-wire finish with Louisiana Tech. And for the second time this season, it was the junior point guard with the ball in his hands, making a play to snatch a lead for the Mean Green. On January 18, that lead stuck, as Hamlet ran the length of the floor with 4.3 seconds left to sink a buzzer-beating floater that notched UNT’s first win in Ruston, La. since 1952.
On Saturday, the euphoria was only temporary. With the Mean Green trailing by two with just under 30 seconds left, Hamlet rejected a screen, knifed through the lane and absorbed contact — and a foul — from Bulldogs’ guard Amorie Archibald as he banked in a game-tying layup. He would make the ensuing free throw to give UNT a 71-70 lead, only to watch as LA Tech’s own playmaking point guard, DaQuan Bracey, made a game-winning shot with 1.1 seconds left.
In the end, it was a mixed bag of drama for the Mean Green in a regular season split with LA Tech. But on the whole, the good times have been far more frequent than the bad with Hamlet running the show in a season that has seen UNT fire its way to the top of Conference USA.
At 18-10 (12-3), the Mean Green sit in first place as they eye their first regular season title since joining CUSA in 2013. The loss to LA Tech was a hiccup in what has been a torrid stretch for UNT, which has won 14 of its last 17 games. At the center of it all has been Hamlet, which was a role the UNT coaching staff sold the junior college prospect on last year coming out of Northwest Florida State College.
“They didn’t lie,” Hamlet said. “They told me I’d have to come in and work, and change the program around with the pieces that we have. They’ve just given me the keys from day one.”
And the first-year lead guard has delivered. Hamlet has played at a Player of the Year level in his debut season, and helped turn UNT into an efficient scoring machine in a resurgent campaign.
Both are a drastic pivot from a year ago.
A season in reverse
It unraveled quickly on the Mean Green in 2018-19.
Deep into the season, UNT owned one of the country’s shiniest records. On February 7, the Mean Green beat Marshall to move to 20-4, highlighted by a 12-1 non-conference run and four-game winning streak to open league play that had pushed their overall record to 16-1. But stubbed by injuries and an inconsistent offense, the Mean Green would lose the final seven games of the regular season.
Key pieces — like now-Gonzaga guard Ryan Woolridge and then-senior Jorden Duffy — missed time during that losing streak, which stretched head coach Grant McCasland’s roster to the limits. At its worst, a bare bones squad saw four players log all 40 minutes in a loss to Florida International in mid-February of last year. McCasland talked about where his team was following a loss to Florida Atlantic, the fifth straight during that downturn.
“We’re just not playing well together,” McCasland said. “We’re just not in sync. When we needed a big play we forced it and then they went on transition.”
UNT has found itself very much in sync a season later, even as its starting point guard (Woolridge) left for Gonzaga.
With the addition of Hamlet (14.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 39.7 3P%), the Mean Green offense has exploded. The JuCo transfer has helped engineer the 25th-best offense in the country per KenPom, a world away from where they finished a year ago (265th). They’ve reached that figure by scorching the bottom of the net, ranking fifth nationally in effective field goal percentage (56.0%) and posting even gaudier numbers since CUSA play began. In running out to a 12-3 league record, the Mean Green have made nearly 40 percent of their three pointers (39.0%) and 60 percent of their two-point attempts (59.7%).
That potency has kept defenses on their heels.
“It makes my job so much easier playing with these guys. Our whole team really can shoot one through five, it’s fun because we’re really hard to guard,” Hamlet said. “A lot of teams try to run us off the line, but Coach [McCasland] always preaches points in the paint and that’s where we win at, it’s points in the paint.”
The results, however, weren’t immediately there.
Whereas last season started with a bang and ended with a wheeze, this year has been flipped. UNT crawled to a 4-7 start against a markedly tougher non-conference schedule, with all but one of those losses to teams in or around the NCAA Tournament picture in VCU, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Utah State, Oklahoma and Dayton. Four of the early defeats came by single digits, including a tight, two-point loss to the Sooners on December 5. That day, the Mean Green scored 80 points and flashed their potential as a deep and dangerous offensive team, but just couldn’t close it out, as the Sooners won a back-and-forth final few minutes of a game UNT had led for nearly 30 minutes.
To Hamlet, the team didn’t lose its confidence during that stretch.
“The coaching staff, everyone believed it would work out. Early on, we were in so many close games against big teams, and just right there,” Hamlet said. “It helped us to get to this point because going into conference, we knew how it felt to not close games out. We’ve gotten so much better closing games out at the end. It’s something we always knew we had to keep working on.”
The Mean Green ultimately withstood that early season slog, and found ways to emerge on the right end of close games. That was there during that first foray against LA Tech, or when the UNT defense suffocated Marshall during the final minutes of a three-point road win on January 4. But more often than not, the Mean Green’s offense has planted lopsided scores on conference opponents. Nearly half of their league wins (5) have come by 18 points or more.
Hamlet is clearly a big part of that, as the lead guard who models his game after elite playmakers like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving has posted one of the country’s best assist rates (33.6%) while remaining a threat to score himself at all three levels. Yet he landed on a team not lacking options around him.
“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.”
Those pieces include leading scorer Umoja Gibson (14.6 PPG, 38.2 3P%), who played a big role last season as a redshirt freshman after having his 2017-18 season essentially wiped out by injury. He and redshirt senior D.J. Draper, a former walk on that leads the country in three-point shooting (52.7 3P%), have added incredible punch on the perimeter. And Hamlet wasn’t the only impact newcomer, as North Dakota State graduate transfer Deng Geu (7.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG), junior James Reese (8.7 PPG, 38.2 3P%) and junior Thomas Bell (6.4 PPG) have added depth to a team that sorely needed it.
With better health and more options, McCasland hasn’t faced another roster crunch.
“That’s the problem with us,” McCasland said. “You take away something, you have to deal with something else.”
That allowed UNT to enter CUSA’s bonus play in pole position, but with plenty of work to do to secure their first regular season title in their current conference home.
Playing from the front
Hamlet knows what it’s like to be the favorite. He also knows how quickly that can change.
The point guard committed to Buffalo out of high school, but left before playing a game, telling nfwdailynews.com that it wasn’t a great fit in a 2018 interview. After a year at Motlow State Community College, Hamlet spent last season at JuCo powerhouse Northwest Florida State College. The Raiders stormed through last season with Hamlet at the helm, entering an NCJAA Tournament quarterfinal matchup with Billy Gillespie-led Ranger College ranked as the No. 1 team in the country.
That sparkling ranking didn’t end up mattering, as Ranger dispatched Northwest Florida State in a close, three-point game. That stuck with Hamlet.
“It didn’t matter that we were number one,” he said. “You still need to go out there and play as if you’re number 10.”
The Mean Green enter the stretch run as number one in CUSA, even if it’s by a small margin. As good as their offense has been, a talented, experienced and deep LA Tech team was able to out-gun UNT on its home floor behind Bracey (26 points). The Bulldogs (20-7, 11-4) own arguably C-USA’s best win of the year (Mississippi State), and seem to have a senior-heavy team capable of finally breaking through under fifth-year coach Eric Konkol. Western Kentucky has been resilient, shaking off star big man Charles Bassey’s season-ending injury to post winnings streaks of five and four games at various points during league play, and are very much alive in the race at 18-9 (11-4).
Hamlet’s emergence, however, has been the biggest storyline in UNT getting to, and this time, remaining at the top of the standings as March nears. It was in part born out of patience for the Mean Green, as assistant coach Jareem Dowling had recruited Hamlet out of high school, and stayed on the case as the guard entered the JuCo ranks.
Those years of persistence paid off, as the Hamlet-led Mean Green are seemingly poised to close the season as strong as they started it a year ago.