The 2023 National Invitational Tournament Championship game will be a battle of Conference USA as defensive stalwarts North Texas matchup against the athleticism and scoring of UAB.
This year’s NIT has been a showcase of mid-major talent and North Texas have been one of the best all season finishing 25-6 and continuing right on into the postseason.
The Mean Green opened the tournament by handedly defeating Alcorn State, 69-53, led by 21 points from leading scoring Tylor Perry before moving past Sam Houston, 75-55, in the Second Round. Grant McCasland’s squad followed this up with the program’s first Power-5 win of the season with a win over Oklahoma State, 65-59, behind 23 points from Perry and a double-double from unlikely hero Moulaye Sissoko.
To advance to the championship, the Mean Green managed back-to-back triumphs against P5 by holding Wisconsin scoreless in the final nine minutes for a 56-54, comeback victory.
After finishing the season 23-8, the Blazers opened the NIT in similar fashion to North Texas, thrashing Southern Miss, 88-60, with a double-double contribution from KJ Buffen.
UAB marked the second round with a 77-59 thumping of Morehead State and a few days later advanced past Vanderbilt with, 67-59, in which Jordan “Jelly” Walker broke the program’s single-season scoring record.
In the semifinals against Utah Valley, Andy Kennedy and Co. led early and dominated the first half, but despite a 10-point advantage at the under eight media break it would take overtime to decide a winner. With a career-high 30 points from Ty Brewer, UAB prevailed 88-86 to book a spot in the NIT Championship for the first time in Blazers history.
With both program’s representing Conference USA, North Texas and UAB faced off twice in the regular season which produced two wins for the Mean Green including a double-OT victory in Denton, Texas.
However, at the conference tournament, it was the No. 3 seed Blazers upsetting No. 2 North Texas, 76-69, to send UAB to the Championship where they would eventually fall to Final Four squad FAU.
Of course, when talking about North Texas, the big thing to watch for is their defensive prowess. Between Perry, Rubin Jones, and Kai Huntsberry, their guards have quick and active hands with the team averaging 6.4 steals/game and force 12.2 turnovers/game.
Furthermore, the Mean Green have size as well with Abou Ousmane holding down the interior while a pair of oversized guards in Aaron Scott and Jayden Martinez can create mismatches all over the floor.
Perry will lead North Texas offensively and has done so throughout this NIT run, but this team will score primarily by committee and bolsters a trio of double-digit scorers for UAB to deal with.
On the other side, the Blazers maintain one of the best backcourts in Conference USA with both Walker and Eric Gaines shouldering the scoring load, but both have played below their standards early in the NIT. Nonetheless, both Walker and Gaines pose a major threat as UAB’s leading scorers who can also rebound and set up teammates at a high level, with the Blazers success often dependent on these two.
As was evident throughout their NIT run, the Blazers have had a lot of other contributors step up including Buffen, Brewer, and senior big man Trey Jemison, which shows UAB size and defensive capabilities.
All three will be a problem on the boards for North Texas and could create some challenges for a smaller Mean Green roster when compared to the veteran interior pieces for UAB.
Much like we saw during the regular season, I think the North Texas defense is going to cause some major problems for the Blazers. I’m expecting a very close game, as were the last two between UAB and North Texas but the Mean Green are going to outlast the Blazers. No matter who wins, we are looking forward to that battle between Walker and Perry and think we could see some outstanding performances from both to cap off a historic season for Conference USA.