(AP) – 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.

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“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.

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“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.

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CBSDFW.com Staff