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Top-ranked defense fuels historic season for men’s basketball team

Top-ranked defense fuels historic season for men’s basketball team

Top-ranked defense fuels historic season for men’s basketball team
March 03
10:00 2022

Defense has paved the way for men’s basketball to tally 20 wins in 21 games and win the Conference USA regular season championship.

Allowing 55.3 points per game so far is the fewest in the team’s 67-year history and exactly seven points less than the previous record set last season, according to Sports Reference. The mark also ranks No. 1 in the nation, two points ahead of San Diego State University as of Monday night.

“These are the best coaches I have been around my whole life,” senior forward Thomas Bell said. “They do a good job of keeping us humble and focusing on the next game.”

After taking over for former coach Tony Benford in 2017, head coach Grant McCasland and associate head coach Ross Hodge have led the defensive improvement. McCasland said Hodge is the mastermind of the defense and has been a major reason for the team’s success.

Since McCasland and Hodge were introduced, the scoring defense has improved each season. The Mean Green allowed 75.3 points per game in the last year of the Benford era, putting the current average down 20 points in five years. In that time frame, North Texas has had five consecutive winning seasons after three consecutive losing campaigns to end the Benford era.

“We have gotten more comfortable in the system,” senior guard JJ Murray said. “As coaches, they have learned from our losses and we have gotten better over the years.”

After Gonzaga University lost a road contest to Saint Mary’s College of California on Feb. 26, the Mean Green were left as the only unbeaten team in away games at 8-0 in opponent’s buildings. The team has two more true road contests coming up this week against the University of Texas-San Antonio and the University of Texas-El Paso.

North Texas also has the fewest points allowed against Division I schools away from home, according to Team Rankings. The team’s mark of 58 points allowed per game combines both neutral site contests and true road games.

“Defense can travel to any court,” Murray said. “If we defend at a high enough level no matter if we are making shots or missing shots, we have a good chance to win.”

Hodge said coaching the defense has been a collaborative effort and ideas from the entire coaching staff go into the system. A point of emphasis that the coaching staff preaches in efficiency. Hodge said defense is directly connected to the offense.

“We may go through some stretches where the ball isn’t going through the hole,” Hodge said. “As long as we are taking care of the basketball and generating quality shots, our defense can get set.”

A pair of the defensive leaders, Murray and Bell hold team-highs in steals and blocks, respectively. Murray leads the team with 1.7 steals per game and Bell averages 1.0 blocks per game. Hodge said Murray is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country.

The Mean Green have not suffered a loss since Jan. 6. Over the course of the Mean Green’s 14-game win streak, North Texas has forced 11.8 turnovers per game and held opponents to 41.4 percent shooting from the field.

“It’s our foundation in every game,” McCasland said. “We cannot let our offense affect our defense. That shows a mature team, and is what we have been able to do this month.”

With its most recent victory, North Texas has secured the No. 1 seed in the C-USA tournament. The Mean Green will face the winner of the No. 4 seed from the East and the No. 5 seed of the West.

With tournament season knocking on the door, Hodge said strong defense will be crucial in key moments. In the program’s first NCAA tournament win ever against Purdue University last March, North Texas held the Boilermakers to 3-of-14 shooting in overtime to win 78-69.

“These games in March come down to a small margin for error,” Hodge said. “Every possession is magnified.”

Featured Image: JJ Murray guards during a game on Feb. 7, 2022. Photo by Kristian Freeman

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Tyler Luker

Tyler Luker

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