The tough road North Texas has traveled over the last two weeks isn’t going to get easier — at least not until the New Year.
UNT was hammered at home by mid-major power Lehigh and lost on the road Saturday to defending Sun Belt Conference tournament champion Western Kentucky, a loss that left the Mean Green at 0-2 in conference play for the first time since the 1998-99 season.
Breaking a slide that has seen UNT (5-8) lose two straight and six of its last eight won’t be easy tonight when it plays a New Year’s Eve game at Middle Tennessee.
MTSU (10-3) is 2-0 in Sun Belt play and has picked up wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
What makes matters worse is that the Mean Green could be without starting point guard Chris Jones, the team’s catalyst and one of the best playmakers in the Sun Belt.
The sophomore sprained his right foot in the Mean Green’s loss to the Hilltoppers and didn’t practice Sunday night. His status will be a game-time decision.
Jones is averaging 10.2 points and leads the Sun Belt in assists at 5.0 per game.
If Jones does not play, shooting guard Alzee Williams would likely slide over and start at the point.
UNT could then turn to Jordan Williams, who came off the bench to score a team-high 18 points against WKU, at shooting guard.
It’s a less-than-ideal situation for UNT, whether Jones plays or not.
“We have to dig down,” Alzee Williams said following the Mean Green’s loss to WKU. “The coaching staff says we are getting better and better every game.”
That improvement just has not resulted in wins against the best teams UNT has faced in nonconference play or in the Sun Belt, where the Mean Green was expected to be among the league’s elite teams.
UNT lost its Sun Belt opener to Louisiana-Lafayette before falling to WKU.
The Mean Green will have to win tonight to avoid falling to 0-3 in league play for the first time since the 1989-90 season, when UNT was a member of the Southland and lost its first four conference games.
Avoiding a 0-3 start could be tough to do against MTSU, which has won its last three games and five of its last six.
UNT head coach Tony Benford compared the Blue Raiders to last season’s Murray State team that went 31-2 and won a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.
Senior guard Marcos Knight is averaging 12.2 points a game to lead the Blue Raiders, while junior forward Shawn Jones is adding 10.2 points a night.
Knight scored a season-high 19 points while leading MTSU to a win over UNT at the Super Pit last season.
While UNT has failed to live up to expectations so far this season, Benford and his players believe they are improving.
UNT was down 15 in the first half of its loss to WKU before rallying. The Mean Green led briefly in the second half when freshman Clarke Overlander hit his first 3-pointer since a loss to Virginia on Nov. 20.
The former Argyle standout had missed seven straight 3-point attempts over his last six games before connecting against WKU.
“I think we are getting better,” Benford said. “We have to put 40 minutes together and move forward.”
UNT will have to get Tony Mitchell on track if it hopes to break out of its funk against MTSU. The Sun Belt’s Preseason Player of the Year scored only seven points to go along with 10 rebounds against WKU. He took only eight shots from the floor.
Mitchell is averaging 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds a game to lead UNT.
“He got some good looks that didn’t go down, but he also passed some up good looks,” Benford said after the game. “We need him to be more aggressive.”
That could be particularly important tonight, when the Mean Green will try to continue to improve and snap its two-game slide on a night it might not have one of its best players in Jones.
“We are getting closer and closer every time,” Jordan Williams said. “Eventually, we are going to get there.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.