Grant McCasland
Luke Della

The Next Step

DENTON — On March 14, 2017, when Grant McCasland was introduced as the Mean Green's new head men's basketball coach, he spoke for exactly 14 minutes and 23 seconds.

In that time, McCasland easily said over 1,000 words but none more than "invest" and "compete."

Now as North Texas enters year two of the McCasland era, competition and the investment in the team is evident everywhere on the court.

"It's a mindset," said all-conference junior guard Roosevelt Smart. "It's an attitude. It's something that's hard to explain but it's what makes us better and is easy to see in practice and in games."

When watching the Mean Green in practice it doesn't take long to see what Smart is talking about. McCasland and his staff not only coach the technical side of basketball but they'll stop practice to teach the intangible side as well.

"Hey," yells McCasland after a turnover during a drill in practice. "These things happen. Go up to him and tell him 'we got this and don't worry.' It takes all of you. Don't leave your teammate hanging. If you want to compete for championships you have to be vocal and encourage."

Moments later, at the end of another drill, the horn sounds and every player, manager and graduate assistant on the team yells. But before grabbing water, they all give multiple teammates high fives.

"On the surface it might seem little league or silly but you can't underestimate the power of a good high five," says sophomore forward Zachary Simmons with smile. "Who doesn't like getting a high five? It's symbolic. It shows we're in this together and support one another."

But before you think the Mean Green are a bunch of kumbaya boy scouts, a switch is flipped once the ball is in play. A required nastiness to win is instilled in every drill. 

From the weight room to the court, competition is everywhere on this North Texas team.

Every drill puts the Mean Green in an opportunity to compete against one another with consequences for losing or failing, typically some form of cardio. 

"No one wants to lose and no one wants to run," Simmons says with a laugh. "It carries over into the games. Competing is something that we all have inside of us but it's also something we've built and learned over time.

"We are defnitely better competitors today than we were last year, and that will help us win more games just as much as working on our technical skills. Being competitive is a mental toughness." Simmons adds. 

During a team scrimmage with little time left on the clock, a foul is committed by the defense in the backcourt on the inbound. 

McCasland quickly stops practice and emphatically echos Simmons' statement about competing and being mentally tough to know the situation. 

He then reminds the team about how they lost to Marshall by two points last season when the Thundering Herds' all-conference guard went the length of the court and was allowed to drive into the paint and score the game-winning layup. 

"You could tell there was a little more maturity on one side tonight," said McCasland immediately following the Mean Green's 74-72 lost to Marshall last season. "I think as we get a little older and more mature we'll find ourselves on the other side. The sense of urgency to compete right now is great, but to win them, we have to take another step."

That next step came a month later in the College Basketball Invitation Tournament, when the Mean Green went on a roll and claimed their first NCAA postseason championship with five wins that saw UNT put up an average of 86.6 points per game, which was 16.2 more points per game than they averaged in conference play.

The momentum from the championship carried over into the summer and into the preseason.

McCasland, who is entering his 18th season as a college basketball coach and third as a division I head coach, has said many times that the work this North Texas team put in during the summer was the best he's ever been a part of. Furthermore, he feels the team has taken a noticeable step forward with its experience gained from the postseason tournament run.

"The biggest difference from the team now compared to the team before the CBI is the expectation," McCasland said. "There's an expectation from everyone, not just the coaches, that we will compete for championships. It was a huge step for our program.

"We just have to make sure we're always continuing to improve our competitiveness throughout the season," he added. 
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