Basketball: Welcome to the jungle

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  /DRC/David Minton
North Texas forward Jacob Holmen, center, goes after a rebound against Jackson State on Dec. 8 at the Super Pit.

UNT tackles league’s most treacherous road swing

As one of the elder statesmen at North Texas this season, Jacob Holmen has a unique perspective on the challenges the Mean Green will face over the next few days on what typically has been a miserable trip for members of the Sun Belt Conference.

It’s not that Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky are bad places to visit. The problem is the challenges teams face there on the court.

MTSU and WKU have long been among the top teams in the Sun Belt in men’s and women’s basketball and are at the top of the league again this season.

The UNT men will face both on the road in the span of three days beginning today with a 7 p.m. game at WKU in the second half of a doubleheader that will begin with the women’s game at 4 p.m.

The UNT men (5-7) then will visit MTSU on New Year’s Eve.

The Mean Green men have not played the Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders back-to-back on the road since the 2009-10 season, Holmen’s freshman year.

“This is probably the toughest road trip in the conference,” Holmen said. “Western is going to play hard. They are a powerhouse every year, and Middle has been the team to beat for the last few years. They are playing extremely well coming off that win over Vanderbilt.”

MTSU pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year by a Sun Belt team when the Blue Raiders knocked off the Commodores 56-52 on Dec. 21. MTSU also beat Ole Miss at home Dec. 8.

While UNT’s game at MTSU appears to be the biggest challenge on its two-game road trip, winning at WKU won’t be easy either.

The Hilltoppers (9-5) have won 11 straight games at E.A. Diddle Arena and are 3-0 in Sun Belt play for the first time since the 2008-09 season, despite battling a series of injuries.

WKU rolled past Florida International 76-63 on Thursday.

“Both Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee are quality teams,” first-year UNT coach Tony Benford said. “I thought at the beginning of the year that Middle Tennessee is comparable to what Murray State was last season. They have a lot of players returning, won over 25 games last year and should have been in the NCAA tournament. They play really hard. With Western Kentucky, I’ve known Ray Harper for a long time. He does a great job.”

Harper, who is in his first full season as WKU’s head coach, has helped the Hilltoppers deal with injuries all season.

Senior point guard Jamal Crook has missed WKU’s last three games and will be out for four to six weeks with a broken right foot.

Shooting guard T.J. Price missed three games with a sprained ankle before playing in WKU’s last two games, while Argyle product Caden Dickerson is out indefinitely with a separated shoulder.

Sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar is playing with a bad hamstring, while center Teeng Akol played just one minute in the Hilltoppers’ win over FIU because of an illness.

“We are going to be prepared for whoever plays,” Benford said. “The Lehigh game proved that you can’t overlook anybody, even if they don’t have their best player.”

UNT lost to the Mountain Hawks at the Super Pit despite the fact that they didn’t have their best player, All-America candidate C.J. McCollum, available due to a sprained ankle.

Price leads WKU with an average of 15.1 points per game.

Tony Mitchell is posting 14.3 points and 8.7 rebounds a game to pace UNT, which will be looking for a bit of revenge today against the Hilltoppers. WKU rallied in the second half of the Sun Belt tournament final last season to edge UNT 74-70 and prevent the Mean Green from advancing to the NCAA tournament.

UNT’s first game against WKU since that loss will follow the women’s game. Mike Petersen’s team is already halfway through what is an equally tough trip for Sun Belt women’s teams after falling to MTSU on Thursday.

UNT led by one after BreAnna Dawkins scored with 41 seconds left, but Icelyn Elie answered with a 3-pointer from the corner with 14 seconds left. The Mean Green got two shots off on its final possession, including a Dawkins 3, but didn’t hit either and fell 66-64.

The loss was one of six that UNT has suffered by five points or less this season.

“We’ve played 11 times and had this type of game 10 times against the hardest schedule anyone in this conference has played. That’s why we’re 2-9,” Petersen said after the game. “When we get over the hump and make one more shot, get one more rebound, make one less defensive error, then we’ll be OK.”

Reaching that goal could be tough to do at WKU, which is 10-2 after beating Florida A&M in the final of the Wright State Invitational earlier this week.

WKU has won five straight under Michelle Clark-Heard, who like Petersen is a first-year coach.

Alexis Govan, a San Antonio Stevens product, is averaging 18.3 points a game to lead three WKU players who are averaging at least 14 points a game.

Freshman forward Alexis Hyder is posting 12.1 a game to pace UNT, which has lost three straight since winning its Sun Belt opener over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Even though Benford and Petersen have yet to complete one of the Sun Belt’s toughest road trips, they know their games at WKU today and the trip in general will be tough.

“Our guys are looking forward to the challenge,” Benford said. “We want to win every game, but the reality is we are 5-7. We felt like we gave a couple of games away, but the guys are working hard and we are getting better.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com.


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