This was supposed to be the best men's basketball team in the history of the University of North Texas’ nearly century-old program. Commercials promoting the Mean Green label the squad as “the most talented Mean Green team ever.” This might just be the most talented North Texas basketball team, but the on-court results have not translated into many wins.
North Texas is a team in transition. Head coach Tony Benford is in his first season with the program and is implementing changes, molding the team into a faster-paced offense predicated on scoring in transition. The effect on his young roster has been occasionally erratic play as they adjust and learn his program. Benford's reasoning behind a faster attack is obvious. UNT boasts a roster of athletic, speedy, quick, and lengthy players.
Tony Mitchell, the All-American forward, is the center of the offense. His 6'8 frame streaks down the open court, always on alert for a chance to dunk. He is tough to contain anywhere on the floor, but especially there.
However, when the team must set up their halfcourt offense Mitchell is relegated to alternating between blocks as his teammates swing the ball around the perimeter looking for the best angle for the entry pass to the post. Obviously, this stagnates the offense and Mitchell inevitably faces double teams moments after getting the ball.
In theory, this would give North Texas better scoring opportunities as someone on the team is open, most likely on the arc. Yet, the Mean Green shoot 27 percent from three and only 40.7 on field goals overall. Poor shooting begets poor offense.
These changes and struggles on offense have led some to call for Benford to be fired. Of course, these are illogical, emotion driven comments that have little, if any, basis in reality. Benford is in his first season as a head coach and has brought with him an ideology and plan to overhaul this team into what he wants it to become. He wasn’t brought in to emulate the coaching style of Johnny Jones. Building takes time -- he hasn't even had the opportunity to recruit a full roster. Fire Benford? Not a chance.
Of course, it does not help the offense when the starting point guard is out for the season. Chris Jones broke his foot in the team’s loss to Western Kentucky in early January. The Mean Green has also played without guard Alzee Williams, the team’s fourth-leading scorer, for a time. Williams sprained his right knee against Florida International as North Texas was making a road swing through the Sunshine State.
The biggest concern for the team, though, is the status of Mitchell. He is coping with a sprained foot and came to practice in a walking boot on Monday, February 4. Mitchell sustained the injury a few weeks ago but, according to Justin Brumit of SportDFW.com, this is the first time he appeared in a boot.
Yet, the injuries have given other players opportunities to step forward. P.J. Hardwick has replaced Jones in the starting lineup and could be just the player North Texas needs as it adapts to Benford’s up tempo system.
Hardwick is a speedy guard who excels at pushing the pace. He’s proven he can lead the fastbreak and find teammates, but is prone to turn the ball over and does so 37 percent of the time he handles it. Despite having the fourth highest true shooting percentage on the team, 48.2, he has one of the lowest offensive ratings, 80.2. Defensively, he has issues guarding players around the perimeter, as they are prone to beat him off the dribble. Nonetheless, Hardwick will be crucial for North Texas as it continues to run in the open floor.
Jordan Williams has also factored heavily in Benford’s system. The sophomore wing trails only Mitchell in minutes played and points scored. However, Roger Franklin is North Texas’ most efficient player. Franklin has an offensive rating of 104.2 and a true shooting percentage of 53 which is the highest mark on the team.
While UNT’s offense has been anemic, or worse, at times this season, it is defense that has continually fails them. Mitchell does an outstanding job of protecting the rim and making opposing players think twice about entering the paint. He became the school’s all-time blocks leader this season. Defending the three-point shot, however, is where the team struggles. For the season, the Mean Green has allowed opponents to shoot 37.8 percent from downtown. That is an astounding number especially considering that they hold teams to 42 percent field goal shooting.
North Texas is frequently caught scrambling on defense as teams rotate the ball. When the Mean Green double-teams an opponent in the post, weak-side defense is slow to cut off players cutting to the basket. Both of these shortcomings, though somewhat improved, result in high opponent perimeter shooting percentage.
This hasn’t been the storybook season that many hoped for. Reality can sometimes be a rather cruel and unwanted partner. A roster full of freshmen and sophomores, despite their promise, should be greeted with tempered expectations. Add a new coach and system and problems can quickly become prevalent. North Texas, though, must accept reality and learn from it. Competition will only be stiffer in Conference USA next season.