There were times toward the end of Grant McCasland’s second season at North Texas when the Mean Green were in what seemed like a no-win situation.
UNT started 16-1 before injuries mounted and players wore down, leading to a seven-game losing streak at the end of the regular season. UNT rebounded to beat Florida International in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament before being blown out in the second round by Western Kentucky.
That experience has helped shape UNT’s offseason, from recruiting to the summer workouts that have taken place in recent days.
“The biggest thing we need to do is make sure that we have healthy bodies going into the season and that we are in the best shape we can possibly be in,” McCasland said. “I’m not saying we didn’t do that last year, but we are taking the approach that everyone is going to play.”
That might sound like a basic premise, but it’s a change from last season. The Mean Green looked like they would be a deep team last year and elected to redshirt guards Larry Wise and Abdul Mohamed after they were injured in the preseason.
UNT stuck with that plan, even after Jorden Duffy, Ryan Woolridge and Michael Miller battled injuries later in the year. The Mean Green had just six players available in a loss to FIU in February.
McCasland and the Mean Green are determined to avoid a similar situation this fall and winter.
“I’m approaching it differently,” McCasland said. “Everyone is going to contribute. We are not going to try to narrow roles so quickly. We are going to give guys more opportunities and not be as fine-tuned early.
“The emphasis this year is learning how to play and trying to get everyone better at everything.”
The hope is that approach will help the Mean Green continue their rise under McCasland. UNT finished 21-12 last season, its second straight campaign with at least 20 wins.
McCasland and UNT’s veteran players are confident they can build on that run because of the approach they are taking this summer and the newcomers who have arrived in recent days.
Junior college guards Javion Hamlet and James Reese, as well as high school guard Jalen Jackson, are on campus. Deng Geu, a forward who transferred from North Dakota State, is currently with the Ugandan national team and will arrive later this summer.
UNT expects forward Thomas Bell III to enroll this summer, as well, after finishing up classes at Kaskaskia College.
“I feel good about where we are at,” senior guard Roosevelt Smart said. “We have the pieces to be better. We have depth again, size, length and guys who can play multiple positions. The guys are also unselfish. That will carry over.”
UNT’s players have spent the last few weeks practicing, playing pickup games and getting to know each other. The newcomers have settled in quickly.
“We are jelling,” Hamlet said. “We’re going to go through some ups and downs, but the coaches do a really good job of pushing us.”
Hamlet is a big part of UNT’s plan to be not only deeper but also tougher to defend by being less reliant on a single playmaker. The Mean Green leaned heavily on point guard Woolridge to facilitate their offense last season.
Woolridge finished with 145 assists as a junior before leaving the program as a graduate transfer.
Hamlet will likely move into the starting lineup at point guard, but UNT is hoping it won’t have to lean on him as much as it did Woolridge.
“We need to have more of a balanced way of playing the game with multiple guys handling the ball and making decisions,” McCasland said. “We relied on Ryan to make decisions. When he and Duffy went down, things changed. We want to limit turnovers while also giving multiple guys opportunities to make decisions. We have spent a lot of time working on that this summer.”
McCasland is excited about the overall experience his team will have next season after spending his available scholarships largely on transfers who have played at the college level.
UNT’s coaches and players are excited about the way the team has meshed in the early stages of summer.
“It’s a fun group to be around because they are excited about playing together,” McCasland said. “They have been to my house, played paintball and have spent a lot of time together, considering it’s the summer. The chemistry looks better than you could hope for at this point.”