UNT feeling good heading into C-USA opener vs. Rice as COVID issues loom in league

Denton Record-Chronicle
Denton Record-Chronicle
Buy Now North Texas coach Grant McCasland watches his team play during a game at the Super Pit earlier this season. UNT will open Conference USA play at home against Rice on Saturday. Jeff Woo/DRC

The opening night of Conference USA play roughly equated to a shot from beyond the 3-point arc for the league’s best shooters.

It was pretty close to a 50-50 proposition.

Three games were played on Thursday night, when three more were either canceled or postponed.

UNT coach Grant McCasland saw the way it all unfolded as a sign of what is to come in the C-USA season for the Mean Green, who will open league play on Saturday with a game against Rice at the Super Pit.

“It feels like it will be tough ride through conference play early,” McCasland said. “I’m hopeful that through this first month that things will settle down. The month of January could be very difficult to know what to expect.”

The uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic has created has spawned a new set of issues for UNT to deal with as it begins what it hopes is a run to a third straight league title. The Mean Green won the C-USA regular season title two years ago, followed by last year’s magical postseason run.

UNT won the C-USA tournament and went on to beat Purdue in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The Mean Green are hoping for a repeat, a journey they are aiming to begin with a win over the Owls. UNT (7-3) has certainly looked the part early while facing a tough schedule.

The Mean Green have posted impressive wins over Wichita State, Drake and UMass. UNT lost back-to-back games to national power Kansas and Miami during a Thanksgiving tournament.

The Mean Green have won five straight games since.

“The nonconference schedule has gotten us ready,” UNT guard Mardrez McBride said. “We are looking pretty good right now and are on a winning streak. We are looking forward to keeping it going.”

That’s UNT’s expectation, despite the fact the Mean Green were picked to finish sixth in C-USA’s preseason poll.

UNT has looked a whole lot better than that through the nonconference portion of its schedule and appears to have what it takes to contend again.

Tylor Perry, an addition from the junior college ranks, leads the Mean Green will an average of 13.8 points per game and has formed an effective one-two punch with Thomas Bell. The senior forward is adding 13.2 points and is adding a team-best 6.3 rebounds per game.

“Everyone says the conference gets better every year,” McCasland said. “Our division has great basketball teams in it.

“It will be as competitive as it has ever been.”

UNT does have the advantage of playing its first three games at home. The Mean Green will take on UAB and Middle Tennessee next week.

UNT’s showdown with the Blazers, who are the preseason favorite in the league, will be one of the premier games early in the league season.

“We know what is coming in this homestand,” McBride said. “We also know what we have to do to let people know we are the same team or are even better.”

Taking care of business against Rice (7-4) would be a step in the right direction. The Owls have struggled with COVID-19 issues, have postponed their last two games and haven’t played since they beat Incarnate Word back on Dec. 16.

Rice has long been known for playing at a fast pace and taking shots from 3-point range. This season is no different. The Owls are making an average of 11.4 shots from beyond the arc per game.

Senior guard Pierre Carl is averaging 15.2 points per game and is one of four Rice players averaging double figures. Carl has hit 34 shots from 3-point range on the season, while fellow starting guard Travis Evee has 37.

“We have a lot of respect for Rice,” McCasland said. “This is the best team that they have had since we have been here if you judge by statistics and rankings.”

The Owls will provide a test as UNT begins what could be an eventful run through C-USA play.

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