Most schools across the country bill their first workout of the season as Midnight Madness, a term hatched back when teams hit the court at 12:01 a.m. on the first day practice was allowed.
UNT went through the first official practice of the Tony Benford era at a more reasonable time Friday and addressed what could be enough to drive some players to madness: sky-high expectations.
UNT has a NBA lottery prospect in Tony Mitchell and four other returning starters, not to mention two other top players returning after missing a semester for academic reasons in Chris Jones and Jordan Williams.
Throw in a talented recruiting class, and UNT seems to have all the makings of an NCAA tournament team.
Benford knows it. His players, UNT fans and national media members all know it.
The Mean Green spent the offseason finding a way to deal with those expectations and believe they are in just the right frame of mind as the days dwindle before a season-opening game at Creighton on Nov. 9 — a contest a lot of people think will be the first step in a season to remember.
“I’m not going to lie — this is a big-time year,” UNT senior forward Roger Franklin said. “We have a new coaching staff and big-time expectations. The pressure is there, but the players and teams that win championships respond to pressure.”
UNT is confident it has that ability, especially after going through an offseason when just about everything went right with the notable exception of the NCAA denying a waiver request that would have made shooting guard T.J. Taylor eligible this season.
The former Denison standout who spent time at Oklahoma, Paris Junior College and Marquette before landing at UNT will sit out the upcoming season. That ruling will allow Taylor to have surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I had to do it once before, so I know what it’s going to be like,” Taylor said of sitting out. “I will focus on getting better, getting ahead academically, support my team and learn the system. I’m going to have surgery on my shoulder. That will give me some time to recover.”
UNT will be loaded even without Taylor. All seven of UNT’s top scorers will be back for the Mean Green’s final season in the Sun Belt Conference before its move to Conference USA.
That upcoming switch will make UNT an even bigger target for Sun Belt teams.
“They have embraced the challenge,” Benford said of his players. “The guys are excited. They have all played high-level competition in AAU basketball and are not afraid of anybody. You look at Tony Mitchell. He has been to USA Basketball camps and been on USA Basketball teams and played in the LeBron [James] camp. Roger Franklin has been in Top 100 camps.
“These guys have all played against quality competition before and have embraced the challenge.”
Mitchell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There is no pressure at all,” Mitchell said. “It goes with it. We look forward to it. Every great team has expectations.”
UNT ramping up schedule
UNT will play a tough schedule this season with games against Creighton, St. Louis and Lehigh, not to mention an appearance in the preseason NIT.
“We are trying to use the blueprint that the Missouri States, the Gonzagas, the Butlers and Virginia Commonwealth use,” Benford said. “We wanted to schedule quality opponents. It was tough to do. No one would play us in Texas. We called them all. We couldn’t get a game.”
Benford said Creighton will play at the Super Pit in the next few years in a return game.
Mitchell will shoot the 3
Mitchell, a 6-8 forward, will have the green light to shoot from deep again this year under Benford, despite the emphasis UNT’s new head coach puts on getting the ball into the paint.
Mitchell shot 43.9 percent from beyond the arc last season.
“We are going to let Tony shoot the 3 because that is part of his package,” Benford said. “He’s an inside-outside guy and can put a lot of pressure on a defense if there is a 6-10, 280 guy guarding him because he can’t match up with him. Tony can bring him out on the floor.”
UNT point guards adjusting to Petersen
New UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen compared the transition his team is making in terms of the system it is running this year to a football team switching from the Power-I to the spread option.
That change has put pressure on his point guards, who will have to make more decisions while pushing the pace of the game.
Petersen has liked the way Laura McCoy and Hannah Christian have responded.
“Laura is getting the hang of it and Hannah Christian is going to be really good for us,” Petersen said. “I have talked to them about it. The hardest transition for anyone in doing what we are going to do is with our point guards. We are going to play at a tremendous pace and dictate tempo. They are going to make more decisions in less time.”
The switch is one UNT’s players are starting to become comfortable with.
“It’s taken me awhile to adjust because it is new, but I feel good about it,” McCoy said. “It’s a good system for our team, the new girls and the old girls we have.”
Benford said UNT posted a 3.0 grade-point average over the summer. … Benford called UNT’s team the deepest he has coached in his 21-year career.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .