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Men’s basketball preps for C-USA Tournament with Combs’ status in jeopardy

Men’s basketball preps for C-USA Tournament with Combs’ status in jeopardy

Junior point guard J-Mychal Reese (52) looks to pass the ball against FIU. Colin Mitchell | Senior Staff Photographer

Men’s basketball preps for C-USA Tournament with Combs’ status in jeopardy
March 07
12:38 2016

Reece Waddell | Senior Staff Writer

@ReeceWaddell15

After getting a complete, team victory on Saturday night against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Texas drew the ninth seed in the Conference USA tournament and will do battle with eighth-seeded Western Kentucky University in the second round. The Mean Green lost its only other game this season to the Hilltoppers, 81-76, in Denton.

Although the Mean Green was able to salvage a split in its final home series of the regular season, the final two games came at a price. Sophomore forward, co-captain and leading scorer Jeremy Combs was injured in Thursday night’s game against Old Dominion University and did not play against Charlotte. He is listed as a game-time decision for Wednesday afternoon’s tilt with Western Kentucky.

After the game against Old Dominion, head coach Tony Benford said losing Combs meant losing a lot more than just the points he puts on the scoreboard.

“His energy and passion. His ability to command the double team,” Benford said. “When you don’t have Jeremy in there, that’s tough to overcome.”

The Hilltoppers won their only battle with the Mean Green this season due in part to two things: inconsistent free throw shooting and a lack of bench production by the Mean Green. North Texas’ big three of Combs and junior guards J-Mychal Reese and Deckie Johnson combined to score 61 points in that contest, as the team got a lowly seven points from its reserves. Couple that with 57.7 percent shooting from the charity stripe, and the result was one of many close losses on the year decided by those aforementioned issues.

But despite being the underdog in the rematch, both the North Texas and WKU are equally matched on paper. Both squads are separated by one team in scoring offense, scoring defense and scoring margin.

“I think when you get to the tournament, it’s all about matchups,” Benford said. “Overall, we feel like we can match up well with most teams.”

Benford did concede the one matchup that could present his team problems is small-ball, particularly when the opposing team utilizes a four-guard lineup.

Unfortunately for North Texas, four of Western Kentucky’s five usual starters have an average height of 6’3 – the epitome of small ball.

“Teams that play small a lot of times and have a really skilled four man that stretches the floor and spreads you out sometimes [gives us trouble],” Benford said.

In order to make it out of the first round for the second time in the Benford era, the Mean Green must overcome those obstacles and get equal contributions from everyone on the roster. With no guarantee Combs will be on the court Wednesday, the challenge may get even steeper.

Combs is one of the team’s top defensive players and has been a part of the six most used lineups this year. Additionally, North Texas finished 10th in C-USA in scoring defense – an area Combs, Reese and Johnson said the team must hone in on to succeed in the postseason.

“The games we lose, we give up too many points,” Reese said. “Sometimes our first shot defense will be good, but we give up offensive rebounds or turn it over.”

While assessing matchups and comparing statistics can be beneficial, Combs said the ability to make a run in the tournament ultimately boils down to one thing.

“We have to win,” Combs said.

The Mean Green take on the Hilltoppers at noon on Wednesday, March 9 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Featured Image: Junior guard J-Mychal Reese looks for an opening to pass. Colin Mitchell | Senior Staff Photographer

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