UNT lookahead

North Texas guard James Reese hoists the Conference USA regular season championship trophy after the Mean Green beat Western Kentucky to clinch the title at the Super Pit earlier this month. Reese is among a host of key UNT players set to return next season.

DJ Draper was convinced North Texas was on the verge of making history just a few days ago.

The Mean Green captured the Conference USA regular season title and were the top seed heading into the league’s postseason tournament.

“We were right there,” the senior guard said. “Our energy was amazing. We had a good team. We thought we were going to win three games in three days.”

The spread of the coronavirus prevented UNT from having a chance to finish its push for just the fourth NCAA tournament bid in program history. That tough break caused the Mean Green to shift their attention to the 2020-21 campaign, one that holds a whole lot of promise for UNT.

The Mean Green are set to lose Draper and two other key contributors but return four starters from a team that finished 20-11.

Point guard Javion Hamlet was named the C-USA Player of the Year as a junior. Sophomore guard Umoja Gibson was named to the All-C-USA second team, while Grant McCasland was named the league’s Coach of the Year after guiding the Mean Green to a third straight season with at least 20 wins.

“This is what we talked about when I came here,” McCasland said after UNT knocked off Western Kentucky to clinch the C-USA regular season title. “We wanted to believe we could win a Conference USA championship.”

Everyone else will believe it now after UNT exceeded expectations in a season when the Mean Green were picked to finish seventh in C-USA’s preseason poll.

The question heading into the offseason is if UNT can continue to build around a solid core that includes Hamlet and Gibson and recreate the chemistry it showed late in the season.

UNT’s players are confident they can reach that goal.

“We’re going to use this as motivation to work hard and do bigger and better things next year,” Hamlet said shortly after the C-USA and NCAA tournaments were canceled.

UNT will look to Hamlet to lead the way. He averaged a team-high 14.6 points and 4.7 assists per game.

Gibson added 14.5 points per outing and hit 86 shots from 3-point range.

UNT must replace a few complementary players after they played key roles in the Mean Green’s run to the C-USA title.

Graduate transfer forward Deng Geu started all season and was a perfect complement to forward Zachary Simmons in the paint. Geu averaged 7.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in addition to leading the Mean Green with 31 blocked shots.

Draper was among the most accurate 3-point shooters in the country and hit 51.2% of his attempts on his way to averaging 4.5 points. Roosevelt Smart is also gone. Smart saw his role diminish after a stellar debut season at UNT in 2017-18 and averaged 3.2 points as a senior.

Forward Thomas Bell made an impact after transferring to UNT from Kaskaskia College before last season and averaged 6.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. He could help fill the void left by Geu.

Freshman guards Jalen Jackson and Larry Wise could also see their roles expand, although Wise will spend most of the offseason recovering from a torn patellar tendon in his knee. Wise was injured just before UNT’s regular season finale.

UNT has one recruit set to arrive over the summer in Houston Yates shooting guard Rubin Jones.

Jones is considered one of the top 20 players in Texas in the class of 2020.

The Mean Green also have two scholarships left to give heading into next season. McCasland could look for players to bolster his roster in the fall or opt to hit the transfer market to stabilize UNT’s roster for the long haul.

UNT is set to have seven seniors on its roster in 2020-21, including several who play key roles. McCasland could look for a player or two who could transfer in, sit out the upcoming season and then play key roles in what looks like it could be a rebuilding year in 2021-22.

The Mean Green head into what will be a key summer optimistic about their future after winning their first championship of any kind since 2010.

The Mean Green would have liked to have added to their C-USA regular season title with a win in the conference tournament but are looking at the bright side.

“It’s something we can’t control,” UNT guard James Reese said. “We left as champions.”

The way it ended will give the Mean Green plenty of motivation to build on their performance.

“If this does anything,” Draper said, “it will make our guys crazy hungry for next year.”

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

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