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Simmons making impact early at UNT

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Grant McCasland heard from several of his friends in the coaching business that he might have something special heading into his first season at North Texas in forward Zachary Simmons.

The former Cedar Hill standout certainly passed the eyeball test at 6-9 and had the pedigree as one of TexasHoops.com's top 100 players in the state.

McCasland is a show-me kind of coach, though.

That's just what Simmons did earlier this season in the span of a few seconds that illustrated his potential and why he continues to hold down a starting role for UNT heading into a two-game homestand that begins Thursday with a 7 p.m. game against Charlotte.

UNT was locked in a tight game with Houston Baptist when Simmons swatted away highly regarded center Josh Ibarra's shot and scored on the other end with 18 seconds left to lift the Mean Green to an 84-81 win.

"I thought right then that he had a presence to him, understands what matters and can make a play in crunch time," McCasland said. "That gave me a lot of confidence in him, seeing that he could finish a game with a big play. I could see that he was ready for an opportunity to start."

Simmons has become a fixture in UNT's lineup ever since, not to mention an overlooked reason the Mean Green (9-6, 2-0 Conference USA) have exceeded their win total from all of last season. He's averaging 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game and often guards the best post player on the floor.

It's a rewarding assignment for Simmons, who is just now starting to tap into his potential while bolstering a UNT team that won just eight games last season. He's expected to make his 11th straight start Thursday when UNT takes on the 49ers (4-8, 0-1).

"I'm just starting to get a feel for the game at this level," Simmons said. "It's a lot different from high school. You have to gain experience to improve. That is what I am getting now. I just hope to continue getting better."

Simmons will certainly get that opportunity if he continues to score as efficiently as he has in the early part of the season. He's gone 5-for-5 from the field twice this season, in wins over McNeese and Grambling, and is shooting 70.2 percent.

McCasland has been impressed with Simmons' touch around the rim, but that's not what has stood out most to UNT's coach.

"He's very smart and understands the game," McCasland said. "He knows time, score and situations. He knows everyone's position and what they should do. He has corrected me in a couple of games when I called a play and he knew I meant something else."

UNT's success this season can be attributed largely to the influx of talent McCasland brought on heading into his debut campaign.

Roosevelt Smart ranks fourth in C-USA in scoring at 18.7 points per game and is in position to be named first-team all-conference. Jorden Duffy is averaging 6.1 points. McCasland recruited both guards out of junior colleges.

Simmons was the one recruit McCasland inherited from UNT's previous coaching staff. After asking around to learn more about Simmons, he decided to try to keep him in the fold. Dallas Showtyme coach Erven Davis — an influential figure in the Dallas AAU scene — gave a rave review of Simmons, as did Brandon Thomas and Jazzy Hartwell.

Thomas was Simmons' head coach during his senior season at Cedar Hill, while Hartwell coached him in the summer AAU season with Urban DFW Elite.

"I saw the kid grow over the years and thought it would be a good fit," Davis said. "I thought he would play behind some of the older guys and would be an all-league player by the time he was a junior.

"He exceeded expectations starting as a freshman. He has a chance to be really, really good."

McCasland and his players put on a full-court press when it came to hanging on to Simmons just a few months ago, largely because of the endorsement of Davis, Thomas and Hartwell.

"The guys came to my house," Simmons said. "I liked the vibe and felt like the coaches were going to take care of me. I didn't want to go somewhere where I felt like I was on my own."

Simmons hasn't faced that issue at UNT, where he has quickly won over his teammates and coaches.

"Zach is really tough," Smart said. "He is just going to keep getting better. He rebounds, blocks shots and also defends other teams' best post player sometimes.

"We are impressed with the way he has handled it. He's very mature for a freshman."

That maturity has been vital as Simmons has faced a dramatic jump in the level of competition he is tackling while also handling a starting role as a freshman.

"It has been a tough adjustment," Simmons said. "The details are not as emphasized in high school. In college, everyone is big and skilled. You have to work on the details and push yourself. If you don't, you're going to be left behind."

Simmons has met that challenge. McCasland now is looking for ways to get his freshman forward more involved offensively.

Getting the ball to Simmons only makes sense considering he is hitting just about every shot he takes.

"Zach has tremendous touch around the rim," McCasland said. "We need to get him more touches. That has been a focus for our team."

The opportunity is one Simmons relishes as he continues to build on the potential he flashed in the Mean Green's exhibition win over Houston Baptist.

"It definitely means a lot that Coach had the confidence to start me," Simmons said. "I didn't want to go somewhere I was going to sit. Playing for someone who has confidence in me makes a big difference."

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