UNT-WKU advance

North Texas forward Zachary Simmons (24) contests a shot from Marshall forward Jannson Williams during the Mean Green's win over the Thundering Herd on Thursday at the Super Pit. 

Zachary Simmons has faced some big challenges in his sophomore season with the North Texas men’s basketball team.

He took on New Mexico standout Carlton Bragg and Oklahoma forward Jamuni McNeace.

Simmons will be back in the spotlight again Saturday when the Mean Green take on Western Kentucky and Charles Bassey. The freshman center will be the most highly regarded frontcourt player Simmons and the Mean Green have faced thus far.

The 6-11 center is projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft and was named one of 10 finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award on Friday.

How Simmons and the Mean Green handle Bassey in a 5 p.m. game at the Super Pit will go a long way toward determining whether UNT (20-4) can continue its late charge at the Conference USA regular-season title.

Bassey is averaging 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds.

“I look forward to going against him,” Simmons said. “He’s a really good player. If we stick to our principles, we can come out with a win.”

UNT has done just that in its last two games to keep pace in a tight race for the title as the final games before the league’s bonus play slate count down. C-USA’s teams will be divided into three sections for the final three weeks of the regular season.

The Mean Green will have to be among the top five teams in the standings following a game at Florida International on Feb. 16 to stay in contention for the title.

UNT heads into its game against the Hilltoppers (14-10) in a tie for second with Texas-San Antonio at 8-3.

Old Dominion leads the league at 9-3, while WKU is sitting fourth at 7-4 after squeaking by Rice in double overtime on Thursday.

Simmons is a big reason UNT is in that spot. He posted a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds in the Mean Green’s win over Marshall and is averaging 11.0 points and 6.5 rebounds.

UNT will need another solid performance from Simmons at a time when its bench is getting particularly thin. Sophomore forward Jahmiah Simmons went down with an ankle injury in the win over Marshall. X-rays did not reveal a break, but Jahmiah Simmons is expected to miss some time.

Freshman forward Mark Tikhonekno is out for the year with a foot injury. Tope Arikawe and seldom-used freshman Shakeem Alcindor are the only options on UNT’s bench if Zachary Simmons gets into foul trouble.

UNT’s lack of depth will make Zachary Simmons’ performance against Bassey all the more important.

“To his credit, [Bassey] impacts the game but doesn’t have to score to do it,” UNT coach Grant McCasland said. “He can make 3s and free throws and is super physical around the basket. There are not many guys like that in our league.”

There aren’t that many players like Bassey in college basketball.

“My team has a lot of faith in me and will pick me up,” Zachary Simmons said. “I don’t have any worries.”

The UNT women’s team also will be in action Saturday when the Mean Green take on WKU in a 2 p.m. game in Bowling Green.

UNT (11-11, 4-6 C-USA) has lost six of seven while taking on some of the top teams in C-USA and will face another in the Lady Toppers. WKU (14-10, 8-2) is in a tie for third place with Marshall.

The Mean Green fell at Marshall 67-55 on Thursday, despite a solid game from Grace Goodhart. The senior tied her season high with 14 points.

Marshall ran out to an 8-0 lead on UNT. The Mean Green never recovered.

“{span}Their transition buckets allowed them to keep the lead, and the slow start hurt,” UNT coach Jalie Mitchell said. “We just have to do better.”{/span}

{span}That will be a challenge at WKU. The Lady Toppers won three straight before falling to league-leading Rice on Thursday.{/span}

{span}Senior guard Terriell Bradley is averaging 17.1 points for UNT. Junior forward Dee Givens paces WKU with an average of 18.4 points per game.{/span}

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

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