Initially, head coach Jalie Mitchell and her coaching staff were not quite sure what they would get from Micayla Buckner. Buckner, a transfer from Collin College who began at Baylor University, showed up to North Texas with all of the potential of an elite post player, but it was a challenge for her to fit in early.
In the 2016-2017 season, her first for North Texas, she began as a starter but fell out of the rotation with issues of performance and conditioning. This season, there has been no such struggle as she is one of two players to start every game for Mitchell.
“I think [last season] put me through some adversity, and I’ve bounced back from it,” Buckner said. “Battling with my knees and stuff like that, the tendinitis has made me stronger. I’m in better shape now. I knew I wanted to become more of a team player and have more of an effect.”
An off-season of hard work has paid off with flying Mean Green colors. She plays nearly 24 minutes and is averaging 7.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, shooting 50 percent and has blocked 29 shots this season. Though she does not shoot enough to qualify, 50 percent shooting would tie her for third-best in Conference USA.
“This season has definitely been light-years ahead of last for her, just from a consistency standpoint, being a presence in the paint and somebody other teams actually have to game plan for,” Mitchell said. “It started with her mindset and with her mentality. I think she’s always known what she’s capable of, but I don’t know that she necessarily believed in it as much at this level until she really just made a decision, made a choice to get after it.”
The 1.2 blocks per game place her sixth in the conference, proving a stabilizing force on both offense and defense. The North Texas game plan is beginning to revolve around her at both ends.
“I feel like when I’m low in the paint, it opens up the outside more,” Buckner said. “As long as I’m handling my business inside, the guards have more freedom to do their thing.”
Associate head coach Bobby Brasel has been a driving force in the development of Buckner and identifies the end of last season as the turning point.
“I think it started last year in the conference tournament,” Brasel said. “She really made a concentrated effort to increase her minutes and increase her contributions to the team and just became a little more invested. She had a great summer, and she’s done a great job. When she’s not in foul trouble, she’s as good a post as there is in the league.”
Though the 2017-2018 season has been a bit of a renaissance for the Garland native, she’s had her difficulties staying on the floor for a reason outside of performance or conditioning.
She’s fouling too much.
In 24 games, she has committed 77 personal fouls, averaging 3.2 a game of the five limit. Not an outrageous number, but as her coach said, sometimes they add up at the worst possible times.
“She gets one, it seems like she tries to make up for it and ends up getting another,” Brasel said. “Sometimes it’s just her trying to make too big of a play or trying to do too much instead of staying disciplined and staying within the confines of the game plan. Some of it is just hustle plays, but they’re not smart plays and sometimes fatigue can cause poor decisions on defense like a reach.”
Buckner works diligently with her coaches on various drills to combat her foul propensities, attempting to keep her on the court in pivotal stretches and not on the bench.
“Me being on the floor is very important,” Buckner said. “Coaches break down film for me, and we watch it together and look for things I can do to stay out of foul trouble like being active on defense, moving my feet, keeping my hands out of the play and being straight up.”
At the end of the day, the team will need their talented, imposing post player on the floor to reach their potential. Whether it’s conditioning, foul trouble or anything else in the basketball dictionary, North Texas will need her and her coaches know it.
“Getting in shape and having the right mentality,” Mitchell said. “Those two things make us so much better as a team.”