The #5 Villanova Wildcats shook off some poor shooting to pull away from #12 Winthrop Eagles in the wee hours of Saturday morning to set up a date with the Mean Green of North Texas on Sunday night.
The #13 Mean Green knocked off the #4 Purdue Boilermakers 78-69 in their own backyard for the school’s first NCAA Tournament win.
Despite the pundit-lead hysteria about Villanova potentially falling to Winthrop, the reality is that never really made sense. There was nothing innate about Winthrop that suggested it would be an issue for Villanova. It was apparent from the jump that ‘Nova was the superior team and, while it took a disturbingly long time for the ‘Cats to realize it, the game was always in their control.
This game is going to be a little different.
First, the important stuff.
The University of North Texas (UNT) is a public research university in Denton, Texas. Until 1988, it was known as North Texas State University. There are literally half a million UNT alumni given that the university consists of like 14 different colleges.
As such, I am going to name three random UNT graduates and will not be taking any questions:
- Meat Loaf
- Stone Cold Steve Austin
- Dr. Phil
Interestingly, the name Mean Green comes from a nickname given to the UNT defense during the 1966 college football season - a defense led by, you guessed it, former UNT star Mean Joe Greene. This school is not real.
Back to basketball. The North Texas Mean Green are coming out of Conference USA, where they squeaked by Western Kentucky in overtime to win the Conference USA Tournament. Up until Friday’s game against Purdue, the Mean Green had thus far failed to come away with a marquee win this season, losing to Arkansas, West Virginia, and Loyola Chicago - the three best teams they played. This is UNT’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and the first under 4th year coach Grant McCasland.
Fun fact: North Texas’ home arena is called The Super Pit. Imagine the omelettes.
Before I get into the scouting report, one quick sidebar. I am going to fight the urge to look a gift horse in the mouth and entertain the notion that perhaps Purdue would have been a better match-up for the ‘Cats. I came across a couple posts over the past few weeks wondering if we’d ever get lucky in the bracket and advance to face a team coming off an upset. It seemed like we were due for something like that after running through two chalky National Championships.
Some quick and dirty research: Jay Wright has coached in 42 NCAA tournament games spread out over 15 appearances. Pulling out the 15 first round games, that leaves 27 games played in the Round of 32 or later. Out of those 27 games, only 2 came against a “non-chalk” seed - a team coming off a major upset (for this stat I ignored a 9 beating an 8 or a 3 beating a 2, etc.). Before I share, can you guess them? I bet you can.
The first was in 2008 when Villanova benefited from #13 Siena’s beatdown of #4 Vanderbilt. The ‘Cats went on to defeat Siena in the Round of 32 before falling to #1 Kansas, the eventual National Champion. The second is far more memorable - Villanova’s 2010 upset at the hands of #10 St. Mary’s, who had just upset #7 Richmond. Now, if we throw out that last one - because a 10 over a 7 is hardly a major upset - that leaves essentially ONE game in the Jay Wright era where the ‘Cats were the apparent beneficiary of an upset.
If I told any of you that I tried to make the above picture smaller and more subtle, you would not believe me.
Similarly, if I had told everyone in October that, come March, we would face a #12 and a #13 seed for a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, every one of you would have taken that deal (twice on Sundays). So, let’s just put that to bed. We play the hands we are dealt.
That being said, I must point out that North Texas is (1) a very strong #13 seed and (2) not a great match-up on paper for Villanova.
North Texas is currently ranked #56 in KenPom, almost 30 spots ahead of the next #13 seed Ohio. The team is ranked just ten spots behind Missouri - the #9 seed in the West - and is ranked ahead of all four 12 seeds. Candidly, this “anomaly” is likely due to the fact that their record - 18-9 - is hardly impressive. However, as I noted above, 3 of those losses came against Top 20 tournament teams. Their only true head-scratching loss was to #153 USTA. The Mean Green hit a skid at the end of the season, losing their last three games before ripping off four straight tournament victories to secure the auto-bid.
We can start with the obvious. North Texas plays slow. Even slower than Villanova. The Mean Green rank #350 in AdjTempo (out of 357 schools). Villanova is sitting pretty at #321. North Texas has kept their opponents to under 65 points in 18 of their 27 games.
As for personnel, UNT is led by two experienced and skilled senior guards. The team’s leading scorer is 6’4 Javion Hamlet, a JUCO transfer. Hamlet is extremely versatile and can hit from anywhere on the floor. He is averaging a hair over 15 points per game and had 24 points and 12 rebounds against Purdue. Shooting 37% from three, he typically only takes 2-3 deep shots a game. On Friday night against Purdue, he went 7-18 and hit all 8 of his foul shots. Hamlet takes his time and gets to his spots - he is comfortable pulling up from anywhere and will wear a defense down until he finds what he wants.
His dad also wears this sweatshirt in the stands - the epitome of a power move.
Javion Hamlet's dad showed up to the North Texas game with a sweater listing all of his son's accomplishments ❤️ pic.twitter.com/DbheJMMTtF— SB Nation (@SBNation) March 20, 2021
Hamlet is joined in the backcourt by senior guard James Reese. Averaging 11 points per game, Reese is also the team’s best three point shooter - he averages over 5 attempts per game and connects at a 35% clip. Reese will undoubtedly look to test Villanova’s perimeter defense - not one of the Wildcats’ strong suits.
With Reese sniping from outside and Hamlet capable of hitting everything in between, these guards pose an obvious threat to Villanova. However, North Texas’ defense is its true gem. Ranked #38 in AdjD, the Mean Green are a very talented defensive unit. While they do not block a lot of shots, the Mean Green generate a lot of turnovers and love to run the break off of steals.
Beyond their two leading guards, North Texas runs a short rotation. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, coming off an impressive NCAA Tournament debut, will have a nice test before him in 6’10 senior Zachary Simmons. Simmons, averaging 10 points per game, is not much of an offensive threat out from under the basket - he tallied just two points against Purdue - but he’s typically a quiet and efficient scorer. Simmons, paired with 6’6 senior forward Thomas Bell, present a legitimate defensive threat for Villanova’s basically-one-man front court.
As for my thoughts for this game, Villanova’s three point shooting better reappear - and reappear fast - or this is going to be a long night. The Villanova starters went 4-18 from deep against Winthrop. While Villanova favors a slower pace, the Wildcats are prone to excruciating scoring droughts - something they must avoid against a stout North Texas defense.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl should be able to beat North Texas down low - so long as Villanova is able to find him. I would look for Jay Wright to try to get Robinson-Earl involved early in the hopes of freeing up the perimeter. Given the strength of North Texas’ defense, I am hesitant to endorse any of Jay’s 4 v. 5 lineups, especially if shots are not falling early. However, Jay showed some surprising flexibility on Friday night and a willingness to expand his rotation as the moment demanded.
As for an X-factor, I will give two. Clamps and Clips.
One, Brandon Slater: Clamps. Brandon Slater had a few bad stretches Friday night that had him nailed to the pine for a large chunk of the game. On Sunday night, Slater will no doubt be tasked with slowing down and locking up Javion Hamlet. If Slater can disrupt Hamlet - and the impact he has on the Mean Green offense - Villanova can advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Two, Jermaine Samuels: Clips. Jermaine Samuels had a quiet 11 points on Friday night but will need to do more if the ‘Cats are going to be successful against a strong North Texas defense. We have seen Jermaine Samuels take over a game and, as the sole senior in the rotation, the ‘Cats will look to him to establish himself on offense. I keep telling myself that Jermaine Samuels will have a storybook senior moment - leading a depleted team to the Sweet Sixteen would fit the bill.
Overall, it’s not a great match-up on paper. I get it. However, yet again, Villanova has the talent and the players to get this done. We have a team full of guys eager to make a name for themselves - this is the perfect stage. Jermaine Samuels - you want to leave on a high note? This is it. Caleb Daniels - you want to show you belong at this level? Prove it. Justin Moore - you ready to take over this team? Show us. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl - you ready for the NBA? Leave no doubt.
As the Bible says in Austin 3:16 - it’s time to whoop some ass.
How to Watch
Time: Saturday, March 19th- 8:45p ET
Stream: Watch on the entire NCAA Tournament with a 30-Day Free Trial of Paramount+ and via Amazon Prime.
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