If you're starting to scope for viable Cinderella candidates, there's one from a year ago that's even better in 2022. Remember North Texas? The 13th-seeded Mean Green upset Purdue in 2021's first round.
Then all but six players either graduated or transferred out.
Somehow, coach Grant McCasland put together a group that's even better this year. UNT (22-4) has lost once since Thanksgiving weekend and extended its winning streak to 14 over the weekend vs. Louisiana Tech. The way UNT won that matchup was a microcosm of what this team's all about. First, it was Tylor Perry hitting yet another huge shot late to give the Green (eventually) a win.
On Louisiana Tech's final two possessions: a North Texas block that leads to a turnover, then a North Texas steal to ice it.
The Mean Green improved to 15-1 in Conference USA and clinched a regular-season title.
Does McCasland even remember what it feels like to lose?
"Not really, but you get reminded all too quickly," he told me.
North Texas ranks 43rd or better in four of the six team sheet metrics. It's a viable at-large candidate as of now, and that will remain true if UNT closes out the regular season with two more wins. (It plays Thursday night against UTSA.) There are a few teams outside the traditional power-conference structure with at-large qualifications, but few are as good as these guys.
McCasland's team ranks 18th in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com and boasts the seventh-best 3-point defense in the country. The Green also play the fewest possessions per game, ranking 358th nationally -- even slower than Virginia -- with 59.6 possessions on average.
They play in molasses and grind you into a paste. The only team to reach 70 vs. McCasland's team is Kansas (71). On average, opponents score just 55.3 points -- the No. 1 points-per-game defense in college hoops.
"We're not going to have the most overwhelming talent when you get in the NCAA Tournament, but if we have that opportunity to do it, you feel like you have to be able to win in different ways," McCasland said. "We felt like if we had as good a talent, if not better, we could speed the tempo up on people. It's not to say we don't have talent, we just feel like this gives us the best chance. I know it sounds crazy, but we want to have a chance to win the national championship, and in order to do that you have to win your league and it allows us to do that."
Playing at such a slow tempo wasn't always the recipe for McCasland, who's won at least 20 games every year he's been a D-I head coach, except last season's shortened schedule due to COVID. (Still, North Texas won that game in the tournament vs. Purdue.) With March here, a few hot mid-major coaching candidates are set for this year's coaching carousel. Murray State's Matt McMahon is as prominent as any of them, with Cleveland State's Dennis Gates, Wagner's Bashir Mason and South Dakota State's Eric Henderson in that group.
McCasland is definitely that category, but he's going to probably need a legitimate power-conference job to be pulled away from his situation at North Texas.
UNT athletic director Wren Baker has consistently come through with committing to the program in terms of funding. The staff is paid better than any other in C-USA, and from updated locker rooms to training room renovations to facelifts to the practice facility, UNT is setting the pace in the conference. It's part of why -- with football being the major component, of course -- the school is moving to the American Athletic Conference in two years.
A former Scott Drew assistant, McCasland has spent most of his life coaching outside the glamour of big-league hoops. He spent more than a decade at lower levels in Division II and junior college. It's that background that put North Texas where it is today. Because it's not just McCasland who's responsible for North Texas. It's his top assistant, 41-year-old Ross Hodge, who oversees the team's defense. UNT, in essence, runs a lot of what Mark Adams installed at Texas Tech. McCasland and Adams used to face each other at the JUCO level.
"There was one game where we scored 40 points, I think we had 14 at the half, and it was the worst coaching experience of my life," McCasland said.
One of the hardest things for a successful young head coach to do is abandon what made him or her good to begin with. It's exactly what happened after McCasland's second season at UNT. The team was 17-1 -- its best start in school history -- while scoring at a top-35 rate nationally and ranked 17th in 2-point shooting/18th from 3. But it eventually fell off after a slew of injuries. At one point there were five scholarship players available to play. After that season, McCasland decided to blow it all up. He'd handle the offense and Hodge would take the defense. That offseason, Hodge met with Adams. Now they run the "side" or "no middle" defensive concept that's been, at least in part, copied around the country.
"I said, 'We're not going to be scoutable and we're going to run ball-screen motion and we're not going to run plays,'" McCasland told me.
He met with JUCO star coach Ben McCollum (Northwest Missouri State) and Jeff Linder (now Wyoming's coach and one of McCasland's closest friends in the business) to revamp the offense. Hodge's defense has been the key, though.
"When I went to D-II, he took over at Midland, so I feel like he's a co-head coach," McCasland said. "That's been the staple to what we're doing. It's been done with continuity as a staff. There's a consistent message."
The defensive-minded approach is based off North Texas' three seniors: Thomas Bell, J.J. Murray and Mardrez McBride. How good is North Texas' coaching? Murray was once a walk-on, now he is the head of the snake on defense. In fact, McCasland had to talk him into coming back. Murray could be making six figures working in engineering right now. Bell is "a freak defensively and a winner. Will do whatever it takes to win."
North Texas' scheme is based on the principle of having interchangeable parts. Anyone can guard anyone. They're one of the tougher scouts in the sport, which will again make them a problem for whichever team gets assigned to them in the first round of the NCAAs. Bell and Murray were the best defenders the past two years, so everything gets adapted around those two. That's Hodge's design.
"This thing's pretty tight right now," McCasland said. "I'm not joking about this. I thought Mark (Adams) was the best defensive coach in the country. Coach Drew used to laugh at me when I'd say that, but now he runs their defense and he (Adams) has beat them (Baylor) twice [this season]. I think Ross Hodge is the best coach in the country that nobody knows about. He won 90% of his games in JUCO at Midland and Paris. You don't win 90% at any level unless you can coach your brains off."
Hodge could be at a bigger program right now if he chose (multiple power-conference coaches have come calling), but he's loyal. McCasland said his relationships with former players going back more than 15 years still shows. When guys who you coached 15 years ago still want to come see you and catch up, it's the mark of a quality coach.
There's a lot that's working in the right way for UNT. Perry, the team's leading scorer, wanted to go here because one of his older cousins was one of the better defenders in program history and he visited campus when he was 8. Another, Abou Osumane, defined UNT as his dream school, "which never happens at North Texas," McCasland said.
As for the NCAAs, Murray recently went to McCasland and, given only six players on this year's roster were on that tournament team a year ago, asked his coach not to bring up the NCAA Tournament at all. Murray doesn't want that in the air yet. Good team with a good record, but the other guys might not ready for it, he thought. When UNT is in the bracket less than two weeks from now, it's a near-guarantee that whatever team draws the Mean Green won't be ready for them either.
How will the committee treat mid-majors this year?
Speaking of North Texas and mid-majors, keep this quote below in mind when we get to Selection Sunday. It's from Tom Burnett, who is the outgoing commissioner of the Southland Conference and chairs the selection committee. Here's what he told me recently about how the committee does (and should) handle teams from traditional one-bid leagues who are vying to achieve or maintain bubble-team status.
"There is a disparity between the opportunities that some schools have vs. others, and it's very concerning, really by everyone in the room. I think what we've done, and I'm pretty proud of this during my time on the committee ... the committee is real good to recognize [mid-major teams] may not get those opportunities. But in those few opportunities they do have, did they take full advantage of that? Were they able to make a mark? Maybe they only get three games in Quad 1, but were they 0-3, were they blowout losses or was it the flip? Were they 2-1? Did they go on the road and beat a Power Five school? All of that is part of the mix ... and we've got a lot of other mid-major voices in the committee room. ... I feel very good about the fair shake the mid-majors are given."
The at-large pool isn't overloaded with mid-majors holding gaudy records, but we've got a few. A team like Murray State -- 28-2, the best record in the country -- is in no matter what. If the Racers don't lose before Selection Sunday, I'd like to see the committee actually reflect the metrics and put the Racers no worse than the 6-line. But I'm skeptical. We'll see. A very good Loyola Chicago team that was top 15 in multiple predictive metrics last season earned a No. 8 seed, and we know how that went.
And that's not to say predictive metrics have to or should be the compass on all seeding and selection decisions. I really like Strength of Record, which is entirely résumé-based. Using all six team sheet metrics, it's clear that, North Texas, South Dakota State, San Francisco and Loyola Chicago set up as four interesting test cases. Can anyone actually be considered a lock right now? San Francisco feels pretty safe, but if it loses its first WCC game (in the semis on Saturday), then I think it gets a little worrisome. A four-loss North Texas should be a No. 10 seed, South Dakota State may well have a claim to the 11-line if it doesn't lose again before Selection Sunday.
I'm keeping an eye on how these teams are handled when the decisions actually need to be made. Committee chairs in the past have paid lip service to this kind of thing, but the evidence has been inconsistent.
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Auburn, for sure, but Purdue's defensive issues combined with its surprising change in volume with its scoring is what made me address the Boilermakers in a recent episode of Eye on College Basketball. In its past six games, Purdue is averaging 67.7 points, whereas Purdue was averaging better than 87 points through Feb. 9. Purdue is 3-3 in its past six (without a win over a projected tournament team) and was held under 1.0 points per possession three times. Painter will be able to adjust in many respects, and Purdue still rates No. 1 in offensive efficiency, but the concerns at this point are viable, even if losing at Wisconsin (on some crazy shots) is reasonable.
Gard for COTY?— JD Stiner (@JStiner7) March 2, 2022
I still have Ed Cooley winning the award as of today. At this point, Gard has to be in the top five. Wisconsin was picked 10th in the Big Ten in the preseason. Now the Badgers are a No. 2 seed at worst.
1. Ed Cooley
2. Tommy Lloyd
3. Greg Gard
4. Bruce Pearl
5. John Calipari
That's my list for today. I'm ALSO looking at Scott Drew, Matt McMahon, Mike Krzyzewski, Kelvin Sampson and Mark Adams in the mix. What a year.
Why wait for the pod? Give it up for Pat Skerry and Towson. The team won four games a season ago, but on Monday night it beat Delaware -- in a game that was postponed in January due to slippery floor conditions -- to win a share of the CAA. It's Towson's first regular season league title since 1994.
Got some pushback after my HQ appearance last week in which I stated (sort of jokingly!) that if a power-conference team fails to get at least two Quad 1 victories by Selection Sunday, it shouldn't be eligible for an at-large berth. Such a rule is never going to officially be in place, but I like it as an informal guiding principal. I was speaking to North Carolina when I said this, but the Iowa honks found me in a hurry. The Hawkeyes have great predictives but just-OK results-based metrics: 32nd in Strength of Record, 37th in KPI and are just 1-5 in Quad 1. I'd like to see one more Q1 win before declaring them a lock. If Iowa loses at Michigan and at Illinois to close out the regular season, are we sure this team is safe? It would be 7-10 in the top two quadrants in that scenario.
Matt McMahon: Kansas State's next head coach?— Patrick Hines (@patemaw7) February 25, 2022
Matt McMahon could have a litany of opportunities. I could see Kansas State, Mississippi State and Clemson all being in play. I've also said Louisville should give him serious consideration, but sources have indicated that the Cardinals will not be looking his way to fill their vacancy. McMahon is 151-66 in seven seasons and could have Murray State as high as a No. 6 seed if the Racers steamroll through the OVC bracket. A bigger job should be awaiting him.
Belmont going to need the auto?— Beardown 2.0 (@0Beardown2) February 25, 2022
For sure. The Bruins had their chance at an at-large case with the roadie vs. Murray State last weekend ... they lost by 20. At 25-6 and with no team sheet metrics inside the top 52, Belmont will need to win the OVC title game on Saturday in order to make it into the NCAA Tournament.
• As first reported by ESPN, I can confirm UMass is not bringing back Matt McCall next season. The UMass job will be modestly coveted. Though it's still an A-10 gig, it's not as appealing as it was even 15 years ago.
• Conference tournament season is upon us, and this is a helpful guide from the person or people behind the @SickosCBB account. How many wins do you need to have to win a league title if you're the lowest-seeded team? It depends on the league. Here's the answer.
• Even more brackets! The Division III men's NCAA tournament is set.
• It's wild to me that Georgetown, Oregon State and Georgia Tech all won their league tournaments a year ago ... and all of them are poised to be the last-place team in their conferences this year. Best I can tell, this has never happened with three power-conference teams year-over-year.
• We'll see what the number grows to come Saturday, but I was told over the weekend close to 75 former Duke players are going to Coach K's final home game. I'll be on hand in Durham to document it all.
• As for the general public, according to StubHub, the lowest-priced ticket as of Monday for UNC-Duke was $3,690. Average price: $5,392. It's now the most expensive college or NBA game in history.
• My official guess for how many SEC jobs open this month: four. I can't give a number and not list the schools, right? Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State and ... Missouri. I'll go with those four. More are in play, but not all will open.
• I've never seen a season so loaded with All-American candidates, and Liberty's Darius McGhee has to be involved. He went for 47 on Saturday, his third 40-plus game of the season, to bump his averages to 24.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists on 46.0% shooting. The Flames are the No. 2 seed in the ASUN bracket.
• One team already setting up well for 2022-23: San Diego State is getting Matt Bradley back next season.
• Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy went out and wrote the story I hoped someone would do this season: Roy Williams' retirement tour.
• Shouts to Montana State, which just won the Big Sky for the first time in two decades. Let's not let those huge accomplishments at small schools go overlooked. They're going nuts in Bozeman right now.
• Shouts to Norfolk State and its coach, Robert Jones, for winning a third MEAC title in four years. Jones should be coaching at a bigger program by April. Has to be.
• The 10 finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year were released Tuesday. Weirdly, Illinois' Trent Frazier and Providence's Justin Minaya were omitted from the list.
• Gotta close with this, because I LOVE IT. Everything about it. The regions, the graphics, what a great thing. Someone went out and made a nostalgic epic-NCAA-Tournament-teams bracket. I could spend an hour breaking this thing down, but here's my Final Four based purely off teams I loved watching.
-- '96 Kentucky in the East (wins the whole thing)
-- '91 UNLV in the West
-- '05 Illinois in the South
-- '99 UConn in the Midwest
A lot of really nice teams omitted from this bracket. Tough exercise, but a great idea.
With March just hours away, I wanted to share a passion project of mine that I've been working on for about six months.— Michael Calabrese (@EastBreese) February 28, 2022
The goal of this project is to determine the college basketball team that is truly the G.O.A.T.
Welcome to Legendary Madness