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Men's basketball: UNT hoping to carry success in nonconference slate into C-USA play

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

The reasonable expectation heading into Grant McCasland's first season at UNT was that the Mean Green would improve at least a little.  

It just did not seem possible for UNT to get any worse after five seasons under Tony Benford that culminated in an 8-22 clunker of a season a year ago.

What has been truly encouraging for the Mean Green as they prepare to open Conference USA play Thursday at UTEP (5-7) is just how well the transition is going.

UNT (7-6) will match its win total from all of last season with one more victory and looks like a completely different team from a year ago.

Veteran guard Ryan Woolridge can sense the change.

"We're coming together," Woolridge said. "The last few games I can sense a fire coming out in us. We're playing against teams like Georgetown and are not backing down."

That approach not only kept UNT in a game against the Hoyas it ultimately lost 75-63, it also has UNT poised to move up in C-USA this season. The question is how far.

The Mean Green finished dead last in the league a year ago at 2-16 and failed to make the conference tournament. 

McCasland is convinced the Mean Green will fare better this year after seeing his team develop in nonconference play.

"To have a team settle into some roles that I feel give us some clarity on how we want to play has been significant in our improvement," McCasland said. "The competitiveness, our will to win and belief have also improved."

So has UNT's efficiency on the offensive end. The Mean Green are averaging 77.2 points per game — up from 69.2 last season, when UNT often struggled to score in half-court situations. 

UNT also is a much more effective rebounding team so far. UNT pulled down 3.0 fewer rebounds per game than its opponents last season. The Mean Green enter conference play averaging 4.5 more rebounds than the opposition this year.

McCasland named the physicality UNT is playing with as perhaps the area where the Mean Green have improved the most.

UNT has pulled out a series of close games, including overtime wins over Indiana State and San Diego.

"We have learned a lot and know we can compete against anybody," sophomore guard A.J. Lawson said. "People think that we can't compete against big-name schools, but we don't back down. We are also closing games well."

The result has been a huge jump in UNT's standing on a national basis. The Mean Green are ranked No. 228 in Ken Pomeroy's national rankings — up nearly 100 spots over last season, when they wound up No. 320.

McCasland has maintained since he arrived that the Mean Green will improve dramatically as the season goes along. UNT has an entirely new staff and several new players who are just getting used to playing on the Division I level.

Transfer guard Roosevelt Smart has been UNT's best player and is averaging 17.6 points per game. He's one of four players averaging in double figures.

That total might be even higher had UNT not lost freshman guard Umoja Gibson to a broken ankle two games into the season. Gibson was averaging 10.5 points when he was lost for the year.

Fellow guard Jorden Duffy also has missed significant time with a series of injuries. McCasland expects Duffy to make an impact in conference play, as the Mean Green look to improve on the offensive end.

McCasland sees UNT's ability to score in tight spots as one of its remaining challenges.

"If we are not making shots from 3, we need to find better ways to score without turning the ball over," McCasland said. "We have to make sure we get good shots and don't have to rely on late-clock 3s or tough shots. We have to find a way to score down low. We have shown we can score down there. We just have to do a better job of getting it down there."

UNT's ability to reach that goal will help determine how the Mean Green fare in C-USA, which has nine teams sitting above .500 heading into league play.

Middle Tennessee is the prohibitive favorite to win the conference title after finishing 17-1 in league play last year. The Blue Raiders are 8-4 this season after falling to national powers USC and Miami of Florida in back-to-back games.

 UNT finished on the opposite end of the standings from MTSU last season and will look to begin closing the gap when it takes on UTEP and a familiar face in Keith Frazier. The graduate transfer guard left UNT last season and landed at UTEP, where he is averaging a team-high 14.6 points.

Frazier played in four games last season for UNT.

"It will be fun to face Keith," Lawson said. "He was an older guy who taught me what to do in certain situations and always had my back on the court. It will be fun to play him. Keith was a leader here; he just wasn't on the court."

UNT's showdown with Frazier and UTEP is the first game in a tough series for the Mean Green, who will play five of their first seven C-USA games on the road.

UNT feels good about the way it is playing heading into that series after a nonconference campaign that marked a dramatic turnaround from last season.

"We have to keep our focus on playing as a team and continuing to get better," McCasland said. "As long as we can withstand this early stretch, I like where we are at."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas guard A.J. Lawson hits a layup during a win over Indiana State at the Super Pit earlier this season. (Jake King/DRC)