UNT NCAA behind the scenes

North Texas players celebrate during a game at the Super Pit last season. The Mean Green experienced highs and lows last Thursday when both the Conference USA and NCAA tournaments were canceled.

DJ Draper was sitting in North Texas’ team bus as it rolled toward Frisco last week when he noticed Grant McCasland stand up and begin speaking to him and his teammates.

The senior guard quickly pulled off his headphones and heard UNT’s coach deliver the first bit of news in a wild day that changed the course of program history.

In the hours leading up to Thursday’s quarterfinal games, the Conference USA tournament had been canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. UNT was set to play Florida Atlantic that night.

“He said it was over, that the tournament had been canceled,” Draper recalled this week. “We all looked around at each other. We didn’t know how to react.”

Draper and his teammates didn’t know it then, but the news McCasland shared was just the opening salvo in a day of highs and lows that culminated with the NCAA tournament being canceled, ending one of the more promising seasons in recent program history.

UNT won the C-USA regular season title, finished the regular season 20-11 and was the No. 1 seed heading into the conference tournament. The Mean Green were guaranteed at least a berth in the NIT as C-USA’s regular season champions and had high hopes of making just the fourth NCAA tournament appearance in program history.

James Reese was confident in UNT’s chances to win the C-USA tournament as he settled into his seat on the team bus Thursday morning. UNT’s starting shooting guard also had an uneasy feeling as the Mean Green rolled out of Denton on their way to a pregame shoot-around.

The sports world was already slipping into chaos over the spread of the virus.

“There was a weird energy that day,” Reese said. “We saw the Big Ten and Big East tournaments had been canceled. When Mac stood up, I had a feeling it was going to be over.”

McCasland told his players to call their family and friends shortly after letting them know the tournament had been canceled. He didn’t want UNT’s fans to show up at the Ford Center for a game that wouldn’t be played.

UNT’s players made those calls and began to celebrate a short time later. C-USA officials confirmed a few minutes after canceling the remainder of the conference tournament that its regular season champions would receive automatic bids to the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments.

“I was getting chills,” guard Javion Hamlet said. “We were going to the tournament. That was something we had been working for all year.”

UNT pulled up at the Super Pit after a few more minutes on the road, time they spent speculating on where they would be sent for their first-round game. Their guess was Sacramento, California, after looking up a host of projections.

Hamlet, Reese and the rest of the Mean Green’s players dressed for a practice that would replace their shoot-around.

McCasland received a phone call shortly after his players started warming up. He got off the phone, stopped practice and had his players gather around him.

“You could tell it was tough for Mac to say anything,” Draper said. “He had a really tough look on his face and told us the NCAA tournament was canceled. You play out different outcomes in your head, how we would win or lose and the emotions that would go with it. That was something I never thought of happening. I didn’t know how to react.”

McCasland had his players sit near the free-throw line at the Super Pit. He and associate head coach Ross Hodge each spoke for 20 minutes as UNT employees disinfected the handrails in the seats above.

“They made sure we don’t forget what we have accomplished,” Hamlet said. “This was a great year for us. We are one of the best teams in North Texas history.”

McCasland didn’t respond to messages seeking comment throughout the day but eventually posted a video to Twitter late in the night.

“We genuinely respect the decision that was made to end the season,” McCasland said. “That doesn’t take away the hurt from our young guys and our program. Our heart breaks for them.”

And with that, one of the wildest days in UNT basketball history was over.

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

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