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St. John’s men’s basketball opponent preview: North Texas

The reigning NIT champs await the Red Storm in the first round of the Charleston Classic

North Texas Mean Green celebrate defeating the UAB Blazers to win the 2023 NIT Championship at Orleans Arena. Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks at Rumble in the Garden, we will preview every non-conference opponent on the St. John’s men’s basketball schedule for 2023-24. Our next installment of this series focuses on the North Texas Mean Green, one of the newest members of the realigned American Athletic Conference, who will face St. John’s in the first round of the Charleston Classic.

Game #3: North Texas (Thursday, November 16th)

2022-23 Results: 31-7 (16-4 in Conference USA), won the NIT championship

Key returners: Aaron Scott (7.0 ppg), Rubin Jones (6.7 ppg), Moulaye Sissoko (2.5 ppg)

Key departures: Tylor Perry (17.3 ppg, transferred to Kansas State), Kai Huntsberry (12.3 ppg, graduated), Abou Ousmane (11.1 ppg, transferred to Xavier)

Key newcomers: John Buggs III (10.9 ppg at UTSA), C.J. Noland (3.2 ppg at Oklahoma), Rondel Walker (1.9 ppg at TCU), Jason Edwards (JuCo, 21.9 ppg at Dodge City CC)

Trivia: Only one five-star prospect has ever played for the Mean Green, Tony Mitchell. In his two seasons in Denton, Mitchell quickly set the North Texas all-time record for blocks.

A new dawn arrives in Denton this season. After overseeing the most prosperous period in Mean Green men’s basketball history, Grant McCasland has left to take the Texas Tech head coaching job, right as North Texas climbs up the college sports hierarchy to the American Athletic Conference. The breakdown of the reigning NIT champions was swift, with top scorers Tylor Perry, Kai Huntsberry, and Abou Ousmane all leaving for different reasons this offseason.

Five 20-win seasons, two C-USA regular season championships, a CBI championship, an NIT championship, and the first NCAA tournament win in program history. That is the loaded résumé Grant McCasland leaves behind. So, who will lead the Mean Green in this new era?

The coach: Ross Hodge

1st season in NCAA Division 1

146-24 record at the NJCAA level (83-17 at Paris JC, 63-7 at Midland College)

North Texas Mean Green assistant coach Ross Hodge during the second half in the game against the UAB Blazers at Orleans Arena. Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports

In McCasland’s stead is 43-year-old Dallas native Ross Hodge, who served as his top assistant for one season at Arkansas State and the past six seasons at North Texas. For the first time in more than a decade, Hodge will have the keys to a basketball program. From 2006 to 2008, he led his alma mater Paris Junior College to three straight 25-win seasons and an NJCAA Elite Eight appearance. At his next stop, he guided Midland College to two straight 30-win seasons and the 2011 NJCAA Division I championship game.

The internal promotion of Hodge creates continuity, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that this season’s squad won’t depart from the plodding, gritty style of Mean Green basketball we are all accustomed to. According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo statistic, North Texas was the slowest team in the country for a second straight season, clocking in at 59.1 possessions per 40 minutes in 2022-23.

That tempered pace is a double-edged sword: they had a stout defense (18th in KenPom adjusted defense), so reducing the amount of possessions limits separation with their opponent and allows a clutch shotmaker like Tylor Perry to deliver the killing blow. On the other hand, when the offense stagnates, it really stagnates. During a Conference USA tournament game against UAB last season, it took North Texas twelve minutes to score their second basket of the game. More often than not, the strengths of North Texas’s system would shine through, but how will they perform without their three top scorers and McCasland this year?

The players

It’s never easy to say farewell to one of the brightest players your program has ever seen. Tylor Perry served as the fulcrum for North Texas these last two seasons. Last year’s Conference USA Player of the Year averaged 17.3 points per game, or roughly a quarter of the point production the Mean Green had all season. On the rare occasion he missed a game, North Texas looked outclassed, once getting shellacked by Saint Mary’s in a 63-33 loss. Now he has packed his bags to play for Jerome Tang at Kansas State, who has already proven he can coach up firey, undersized guards like Perry.

Perry’s senior backcourt contemporary Kai Huntsberry (12.3 ppg) is also gone after a quality lone season at the Division I level, which was capstoned by a team-high 21 points in North Texas’s NIT championship win over UAB. Starting center Abou Ousmane (11.1 ppg) has also bid adieu, transferring to Xavier.

Ross Hodge was able to convince key contributors Aaron Scott, Rubin Jones, and Moulaye Sissoko to all stay, while also scavenging the transfer portal to re-tool the Mean Green. Keep an eye on Scott, who averaged 58 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from three last season. The driver’s seat to the North Texas offense is there for the 6-foot-7 junior wing.

Three-point threat John Buggs III comes from UTSA, while Oklahoma transfer C.J. Noland is hoping for a breakthrough at the mid-major level after he regressed in his sophomore year.

Junior colleges have been the cradle for Mean Green talent in the McCasland era, and Hodge tapped that pipeline again by picking up Jason Edwards and Terrance Dixon. Edwards, in particular, has the potential to make an instant impact for the Mean Green as a junior college first team All-American guard out of Dodge City Community College.

Forecasting the game

Neutral site non-conference games in November have the potential to become chaotic affairs, especially when they involve two completely rebuilt teams with first-year head coaches trying to install their systems. North Texas’s super slow-motion game plan won’t be as potent with a first-year head coach and a revamped roster, but if they can control the tempo, they could keep themselves within punching range with the Johnnies. Ultimately, the Red Storm’s depth should prevail. St. John’s wins by eight.