Thursday, Oct 11 at 12:07 PM
It was a summer of change for the University of North Texas men’s basketball team.
Johnny Jones, UNT’s head coach for the last 11 years, left the program to take the reins at his alma mater, LSU. Jones spent his tenure turning the basketball program around, leading the Mean Green to five consecutive 20 win seasons from 2007-11 and four Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship games, including each of the last three, and two NCAA Tournament berths. Jones leaves behind big shoes to fill, but the program intends to pick up right where it left off.
Replacing Jones is Tony Benford, who comes to Denton by way of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was the associate head coach for Marquette. Under head coach Buzz Williams, Benford helped Marquette reach the Sweet 16 each of the previous two seasons. In his many years in coaching, Benford has seen plenty of talent. Last season, Jae Crowder, the 34th pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, won the 2012 Big East Player of the Year under his tutelage. Crowder, now a member of the Dallas Mavericks, is the ninth NBA draft pick that Benford has coached in his career. The tenth could potentially already be playing for North Texas, but more on that later.
Benford will have his hands full this season as the Mean Green are slated to face some of the nation’s top programs while also competing in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament for the first time in school history. Kansas State, who eliminated UNT from March Madness in 2007 on the shoulders of Michael Beasley, will be in North Texas’ bracket in that tournament. The two will meet if they both advance to the second round.
Aside from a potential meeting with K-State, Benford has his team playing the likes of Creighton, Lehigh, which, as a 15th seed, knocked Duke out of the NCAA Tournament earlier this year, and St. Louis. Benford said this summer that he thinks Creighton will be a top 10 team and that Lehigh and St. Louis will be ranked inside the top 25. North Texas will also face UT-Arlington, which always gives the Mean Green fits, and rival Western Kentucky, the reigning Sun Belt champions.
Leading the Mean Green will be sophomore Tony Mitchell, who had a busy summer. Mitchell attended the Amar’e Stoudemire Skills Academy in Chicago and was then invited to attend the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas in early July. These invites should come as no surprise. Mitchell garnered plenty of attention last season en route to winning Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors. He was the only freshman in the country to average a double-double and was the first freshman, since the aforementioned Beasley, to post multiple games in which he scored 30 or more points and grabbed 15 or more rebounds.
Yet, Mitchell isn’t the only player who Benford will rely on to against stiffened competition. After being ruled academically ineligible for much of last season, Chris Jones and Jordan Williams will be back in the lineup. They were the second- and third-leading scorers, respectively, on the team last season behind Mitchell. Mitchell, Jones, and Williams are the backbone of the team. Add junior Alzee Williams, UNT’s fourth leading scorer last season, to that trio and the Mean Green has a potent scoring attack.
The last two seasons sent North Texas home after being just short of a return to the Dance. However, with one of the best players in the nation and a new head coach with a distinguished pedigree, UNT should once again be considered the Sun Belt favorites. Some have predicted even loftier goals for this team, but only the coaches and players can dictate what they can achieve and the team’s goals should be just as high.
North Texas tips-off the regular season against Creighton November 9.
The video package above is from last January. But it's easily the best North Texas visual content we could get, so despite the lack of chronological relevance, enjoy!
Doyle Rader mostly tweets about the NBA. But you can be sure he'll eventually talk about his alma mater, too. To be privy to all of that, follow him at @TheKobeBeef.