North Texas is quickly running out of time when it comes to getting something going early in the first season of the Tony Benford era.
UNT lost a couple of tough games on the road to open the year, appeared to right the ship during a three-game winning streak and then hit the skids again, losing three straight games.
What made the latest loss especially tough to take for UNT was that it came in its Sun Belt Conference opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
About the only positive UNT could take out of that loss Saturday was the timing that gives the Mean Green nearly a month to get things turned around before conference play begins in earnest in late December.
UNT will play four nonconference games before then, beginning with a game tonight at St. Louis.
“I don’t think there is any doubt this stretch is important,” Benford said. “We are not playing like we expected to be playing right now, but we are going to get better. We have a good group.”
UNT (3-5) hasn’t been helped by a tough schedule that has included games against nationally ranked Creighton and Virginia, not to mention its annual showdown with rival Texas-Arlington.
The Mean Green’s road won’t get any easier tonight when UNT takes on the Billikens (4-3), who absorbed two of their losses on the road against Kansas and Washington.
The Billikens hammered Valparaiso 62-49 on Sunday.
“St. Louis is a great team,” UNT forward Jacob Holmen said. “We don’t look at them as a mid-major. They are a basketball powerhouse. We want to go out and establish ourselves and see how we match up against them.”
What made SLU’s performance against Valparaiso all the more impressive was it came just after the team found out former head coach Rick Majerus had died of heart failure at 64.
Jim Crews has served as the Billikens’ interim coach all season.
“It will be an emotional game for them,” Holmen said. “They will want to play their hearts out for coach Majerus.”
SLU finished 26-8 last year and has several of its top players back. Junior forward Dwayne Evans (14.0 points), senior forward Cody Ellis (12.4) and junior guard Mike McCall Jr. (10.9) are all averaging in double figures.
Benford is familiar with Evans and McCall — a pair of Chicago-area products — from his time as an assistant coach at Marquette, which recruited the area heavily.
“They are a pretty good team that gets after it on defense,” UNT guard Chris Jones said. “They get to the 50-50 balls and rebound. They like a slow game. If we pick up our defense, it will be a good game.”
Benford has emphasized improving defensively throughout the season and especially after UNT gave up more than 70 points in each game of its losing streak. UNT gave up 80 points in losses to UVA (80-64) and ULL (80-76) and lost to UTA 72-59.
“We are playing hard, but for some reason we are just not getting it done,” Holmen said. “These next few games, we want to start putting all the pieces together, show a little more chemistry and pick up the pace.
“We know we need to defend. I can’t put my finger on why, but we are not doing that right now.”
That could be the last part of the formula for UNT, which came out of an offensive funk in its loss to ULL, despite an off night from Tony Mitchell.
UNT’s leading scorer at 13.6 points a game took just one shot against the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Mean Green still scored 76 points, which was a dramatic improvement from its previous two games.
UNT will look to get Mitchell on track tonight in the first of a series of key games leading up to the Mean Green’s return to Sun Belt play, when the Mean Green will face Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31, respectively.
UNT aims to improve field goal percentage
While UNT has improved its performance offensively in its last two games, Benford sees plenty of additional room to get better.
That’s especially true when it comes to UNT’s field goal percentage. The Mean Green’s 40.2 field goal percentage ranks 276th nationally.
“We have to get into the gym and get shots up, get easy points in transition and we have to get stops down on the defensive end,” Benford said.
Benford wants to use bench more in games
Senior Justin Patton scored eight points in UNT’s loss to ULL, exceeding the seven total points he had scored in five previous games while battling a knee injury.
Benford would like to see Patton’s role — not to mention those of several other reserves — grow throughout the season.
UNT has six players who are averaging at least 7.5 points a game. No other player on UNT’s roster is averaging more than 2.5 points an outing.
“Patton getting healthy is really going to help us,” Benford said. “We have to get Keith Coleman going and get Niko [Stojiljkovic] in the mix. Our guys are playing too many minutes. I have to balance that out.”
Newcomers play big role
BreAnna Dawkins and Alexis Hyder, a pair of newcomers, continued to help carry UNT offensively this week in a win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Hyder scored 16 points while Dawkins added 13.
Dawkins, who is in her first season playing for UNT after transferring from Wichita State, has scored in double figures in five of the Mean Green’s seven games. Hyder has scored in double figures four times.
Dawkins is averaging 12.4 points a game to lead UNT, while Hyder is adding 11.9 points a game.
UNT to face pair of former Liberty Christian stars
UNT will face a pair of players who are quite familiar with Denton when the Mean Green takes on Oklahoma on Thursday. OU senior guard Whitney Hand and freshman forward Nicole Kornet both played at Liberty Christian.
UNT guard Laura McCoy, who starred for Flower Mound, is familiar with Hand and Kornet.
“I am looking forward to playing them again,” McCoy said. “I don’t know them on a personal level, but I have played against them. They are good players.”
Both Hand and Kornet are starting for the Sooners.
Hand ranks second on the team with an average of 12.1 points a game and leads the Sooners at 7.5 rebounds a game. Kornet has started two games and is averaging 5.9 points a game.
“Hand all of the sudden is a rebounding machine,” UNT head coach Mike Petersen said. “She has always been a great shooter and offensive player with a really high basketball IQ. The last few games, she has made a ton of effort and energy plays. She is out there making basketball plays.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .