Grant McCasland

Grant McCasland coaches North Texas during a win over Florida International during the Conference USA tournament in Frisco last season. McCasland expressed confidence in UNT's newcomers during Conference USA media day at the Star in Frisco. 

Grant McCasland’s role on the sideline in his second season guiding the North Texas men’s basketball team last year resembled that of a master puppeteer.

McCasland knew what each of his players did well and pulled every string he could to get them into situations where they would excel.

The plan was hatched out of necessity and is one McCasland hopes is in the past as the Mean Green prepare for their season opener against Oklahoma Christian on Nov. 5.

“We have enough playmaking guards and forwards we can give them principles and not have to run sets,” McCasland said this week following one of UNT’s first practices of the season. “We have better size across the guard positions and more depth. Our general basketball experience and IQ one through 13 is all good. We have good basketball savvy to us.”

UNT is hoping those changes make a big difference as it prepares for a season of transition for the school’s men’s and women’s programs.

The Mean Green women also opened practice this week as they look to build on a historic season that included their first postseason win beyond a conference tournament. UNT went on to advance to the final of the Women’s Basketball Invitational and will look to build on the momentum that run provided when it opens the season Nov. 7 at home against Mid-American Christian.

McCasland’s optimism is based largely on an influx of highly regarded players, including guards Javion Hamlet and James Reese, as well as forward Deng Geu.

UNT will add those players to a mix of experienced starters, including guard Umoja Gibson and Zachary Simmons.

UNT could also have guard Roosevelt Smart back. The senior averaged 10.7 points per game last season but was suspended indefinitely this week following a DWI arrest.

McCasland believes that mix — with or without Smart — will give him a deeper and more versatile team. UNT lost three key players after last season, including Ryan Woolridge, its most productive player, when he left as a graduate transfer and landed at Gonzaga.

The question for UNT is how quickly that new mix of players will come together and if it can be competitive in Conference USA play. The Mean Green have reached the 20-win mark in each of McCasland’s two seasons and won the College Basketball Invitational at the end of the 2017-18 campaign.

What UNT has struggled to do under McCasland is make a dent in C-USA. The Mean Green have finished 8-10 in league play in both of the last two seasons and ended the 2018-19 campaign on a down note. UNT dropped its last seven regular season games and eight of its last nine.

The Mean Green are confident they have a team capable of rebounding from that slide.

“This is a special group of guys,” Hamlet said. “We’re competing every day and making each other better. We’re all buying in so we can win a championship.

“We’re jelling every day. I’m excited for the season to start.”

McCasland feels the same way, thanks to a remade roster.

“We have an advantage of having established returners,” McCasland said. “It puts us another step toward having our expectations established before we start the season. The newcomers also know that this team has something to prove after not finishing the season well.

“The expectation to be great is there.”

UNT girls transfers art

North Texas coach Jalie Mitchell and the Mean Green will open their season on Thursday morning with a game against Mid-America Christian.

The UNT women also began practice with high expectations after finishing 18-16 and posting their second straight winning season last year.

The Mean Green opened practice looking to build on that performance with a largely rebuilt roster.

UNT lost leading scorer Terriell Bradley to graduation. Bradley was a first-team All-C-USA selection in both her junior and senior seasons and finished as the third-leading scorer in program history with 1,467 points despite playing just three seasons at UNT.

UNT also lost starting guards Grace Goodhart and Brittany Smith to graduation.

The Mean Green have nine new players on the roster, not to mention two new assistant coaches.

“We have been doing a lot of teaching with so many new people,” coach Jalie Mitchell said. “It has been good. The players have been working hard, watching film and trying to do what we are asking them to do. They are humble and hungry. They are growing together.”

UNT is picking up the pace and has changed the way it approaches the game on the offensive end.

Senior post Anisha George averaged 10.2 points per game and will play a key role offensively again this year. The question for UNT is who will complement her on the perimeter.

“We brought in a lot of strong players coming in who are hungry to score,” UNT forward Madison Townley said. “That’s good considering who we lost. A lot of our newcomers like having the ball in their hands.”

Mitchell is confident those players will come through after working with them in the weeks leading up to the opening of preseason practice. Freshman guard Jazion Jackson was an all-state selection following her senior season at Dallas Skyline and is among UNT’s top new players.

Mitchell also had high expectations for freshman guard Keira Neal but saw the Edmond (Oklahoma) Santa Fe standout go down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee during practice this week. The injury will keep her out for the year.

“We will have enough scoring,” Mitchell said. “We are going to find out where it is going to come from when the lights come on. There will be plenty of balance. We expect Anisha to continue to score and also expect the other returners to step up and score more.”

Christopher Minner and Roman Owen joined Mitchell’s staff this season and have helped UNT adjust its offensive approach to fit those players.

“It’s very exciting to have so many new faces,” Mitchell said. “The players are hearing new voices. The new coaches have taken a role with the offense, defense or other things we are working on. They’re not listening to me all the time.”

UNT’s players are confident an offseason of change will help them build on a breakthrough season last year.

“It’s different,” Townley said. “We’ve started to get used to the new players and the new coaches and the way they want to do things.

“It feels right on the court.”

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

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