A rough start to North Texas' season didn't alarm a supremely confident player like Javion Hamlet.
The Mean Green opened 1-3 with double-digit losses in difficult road games against Arkansas and West Virginia, their offense was struggling and they went into Conference USA play at 4-4.
“I know a lot of people probably didn’t believe it when I first said it, because things were going bad, but I knew we had a special group of guys,” Hamlet said Saturday. “Everything I imagined, we’re doing it right now.”
A 78-69 overtime win against fourth-seeded Purdue on Friday night put North Texas (18-9) right behind Oral Roberts (17-10) on the list of early surprises in the NCAA Tournament.
Next up for the Mean Green is No. 5 Villanova (17-6) on Sunday and an opportunity to become the seventh No. 13 — and first since LaSalle in 2013 — to make the Sweet 16.
Oral Roberts, fresh off its 75-72 overtime win against Ohio State, will play Florida (14-9) trying to become the second No. 15 ever to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. The other was Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” team of 2013.
The Mean Green finished third in Conference USA after ending the regular season with three consecutive losses. Then they ran through the conference tournament to lock up an automatic NCAA bid. They led for 40 of the 45 minutes against Purdue on their way to their first NCAA Tournament victory in four appearances.
“There's a resolve to what we're doing,” coach Grant McCasland said. “We had to win four games in four days in a conference tournament. I do believe the belief in the locker room is that we came here to play for it all."
The Mean Green's win was eye-opening to Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team beat Winthrop in the first round.
“They're going to give us a lot of problems," he said.
North Texas' unchallenged leader is Hamlet, the fifth-year senior who found his way to Denton after playing at two junior colleges and a few months at Buffalo.
Hamlet was the Conference USA player of the year in 2020 and the MVP of the 2021 conference tournament, averaging 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7 assists in the four games.
He elevated his game Friday, when he had 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Villanova is still adjusting to playing without injured guard Collin Gillespie. But the Wildcats are a seasoned tournament team and Wright is on track to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as May.
The Mean Green, however, are the third-oldest team in the tournament and, more importantly, are hungry.
“We're going to continue to show the world we belong,” Hamlet said.
ORAL ROBERTS' GLORY
No one is relishing Oral Roberts' first NCAA win in 47 years more than Sam McCants, star of the 1974 team that knocked out Louisville in the Sweet 16 and came close to beating Kansas in the Elite Eight.
McCants, now 69 and living in Florida, said he relived the glory days with half a dozen teammates after the Golden Eagles knocked off Ohio State.
“We're still considered the best team ever at Oral Roberts and the only one that went as far,” McCants said. “It was good to talk to those guys and bring back memories. Friday was a prideful day.”
McCants played only one year at ORU but accomplished enough to be in the school's athletic hall of fame. After ORU beat Syracuse to open the '74 tournament, McCants had 30 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in the 96-93 win over Louisville. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds in a 93-90 overtime loss to Kansas.
He sees similarities between the 1974 and 2021 teams. Both are high scoring, and both love to shoot from the perimeter.
“We were a smaller school going against the big schools, and we weren't ranked and people considered us to be one-and-dones in the tournament,” he said. “We could play with anybody. That's what we thought.”
IN THE MOMENT
Top-seeded Baylor (23-2) will take on No. 9 Wisconsin (18-12) at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the famed home of Butler and setting for the 1986 film “Hoosiers.” For most players today, the movie and its snapshot of the state’s rich high school basketball history means little.
“I’ve seen like maybe 20 minutes of it. It wasn’t that interesting at first,” the Bears' Jared Butler said. “I didn’t like the gyms they were playing in. The backboards were like just the oldest backboards you can see. The clock, when they would show the scoreboard, it would be like a rotating clock. I was like, ‘Aw, I can’t watch this movie.’ But I heard it was like a movie I’ve got to watch. I’ve got to give it a chance sooner or later.”
Though the Badgers sometimes play at a pace more reminiscent of “Hoosiers”-era style of the 1950s, the Bears are more concerned about their experience. Wisconsin’s starting lineup includes three fifth-year seniors and two fourth-year seniors.
“You have maturity and you don’t want to go home, so that’s a huge advantage come tournament time,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
No. 3 Arkansas (23-6) and No. 6 Texas Tech (18-10) are dissimilar in style but share a trait in program-building with the reliance on transfers.
Arkansas’ Justin Smith, who was the star of the first-round win over Colgate, is one of three graduate transfers on Eric Musselman’s team. Another grad transfer is Jalen Tate, who came from Northern Kentucky. With the Norse, Tate played a 2019 first-round game against the Texas Tech team that reached the championship game.
“It gives me a chance to give a bit of get-back," Tate said, “but at the same time it also allows me to be able to tell our guys a little bit what’s coming.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket