Roger Franklin has been looking forward to North Texas’ game tonight against Texas-Arlington perhaps more than any other this season.
The rivalry UNT has developed with the Mavericks has something to do with that feeling, but not nearly as much as one of the more baffling performances in recent Mean Green history last season in Arlington.
UNT fell behind early and then got run over as the Mavericks went on a 32-0 run in the first half of a 97-64 decision in the Mean Green’s final game on the stage at Texas Hall. The 33-point loss was UNT’s worst since 2004 and was a rare low point for a team that has advanced to the final in the last three Sun Belt Conference tournaments and averaged 21 wins over the last six seasons.
“UTA is a huge game,” Franklin said. “This is a game we have been looking forward to after last year when they embarrassed us. I won’t say that we have a vengeful mind-set, but we are going to focus on playing hard both halves. We didn’t do that last year.”
UNT was a team in transition when it faced UTA a year ago with several young players filling key roles, including Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. Tony Mitchell was still weeks away from making his highly anticipated debut for the Mean Green.
In some ways, UNT (3-3) is in a similar position heading into tonight’s game.
Tony Benford will coach just his seventh game since taking over at UNT in the offseason. UNT is still adjusting to his approach with several players who have minimal college experience, including Jones, Williams and Mitchell. All three played just one semester last season.
UNT also has dealt with a series of key injuries. Senior forward Jacob Holmen is among the players who are just now getting back to playing at 100 percent.
“We are starting to get our team back and healthy and understand what we need to do to win,” Benford said.
A chance to bury the memories of last season’s tough loss at UTA (2-1) is just one of the reasons today’s game is vital for UNT. There also is the matter of regional bragging rights and an opportunity to enter Sun Belt play on a roll.
UNT bounced back from consecutive losses to open the season to win three straight before falling at Virginia 80-64 in its last game.
“It has definitely become a crosstown rivalry,” Holmen said of UNT’s yearly game against the Mavericks. “We always want to be the best team in the Metroplex.”
UTA has become a Dallas-Fort Worth basketball power over the last few years and won the regular-season Southland Conference title a year ago before moving to the WAC this season.
Senior forward Kevin Butler is averaging 12.7 points per game to lead the Mavericks, whose only loss came to Oklahoma. The Sooners escaped Arlington with a 63-59 win earlier this month.
Mitchell is averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds to pace UNT, while Williams is adding 12.8 points an outing.
UNT’s players say they are finding their form at the right time. The Mean Green will open Sun Belt play at home Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“You definitely want momentum going into conference because anything can happen in conference play,” Holmen said.
Picking up that momentum while putting a tough loss to UTA even further in the past would be a boost for UNT.
“Coach Benford brings it up a lot,” Franklin said. “I don’t think that we came to play or showed good character. We are ready to get the monkey off our backs.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.