MIAMI — The buzzer was about to sound at the end of North Texas’ loss to Florida International on Thursday when Tony Mitchell hoisted a shot from beyond the 3-point arc.
The ball clanged away as UNT and Mitchell walked off after perhaps the most baffling loss in a season full of them.
UNT was expected to have perhaps the best team in school history this season with Mitchell — a top NBA prospect — serving as the centerpiece.
The Mean Green’s 70-64 loss to the Golden Panthers was maybe the biggest indication yet that UNT’s dreams of making this year a milestone and a resume-builder for Mitchell are on life support.
Mitchell failed to score for the first time in his college career and took only three shots against FIU, and UNT lost for the sixth time in eight games.
The Mean Green (7-12) will enter tonight’s game at Florida Atlantic (10-9, 5-3 Sun Belt) tied for last in the overall conference standings at 2-6.
“We want Tony to shoot the ball,” UNT coach Tony Benford said after Thursday game. “He had looks. He has to take more shots. He only had two rebounds. That’s not him. We have to put him in spots where he can shoot the ball.”
Doing that has been a problem all year long.
Mitchell showed the ability to score from just about anywhere as a freshman last season, when he averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game under former head coach Johnny Jones, despite not being able to practice or play until becoming eligible at the end of the fall semester.
The expectation was that Mitchell would take a leap forward under Benford after Jones left for LSU. Mitchell excelled at the Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James skills camps for top NBA prospects over the summer, but he is averaging just 13.8 points and 8.6 rebounds a game as a sophomore.
Mitchell wasn’t made available for comment after UNT’s loss to FIU, but Benford and his teammates say there is no simple solution for how to get him going.
UNT lost its best shooter in Brandan Walton and starting point guard Chris Jones when both broke bones in their feet. Clarke Overlander, Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton also have been out with injuries, robbing UNT of depth and outside shooting threats.
The Mean Green ranks 344th out of 347 teams nationally in 3-point field goal percentage at 25.7 percent. Those struggles have allowed FIU and others to employ zone defenses that limit Mitchell, who has said throughout the year that he tries to take good shots.
“I didn’t try to force it,” Mitchell said following a 29-point outburst in a win over Troy. “We have a great coaching staff. Those guys drew up plays that got me to good spots where I can score, and I got to the free-throw line.”
Those types of games have been the exception.
Benford says that he wants Mitchell to take at least 15 shots a game, a mark he has reached just four times. Mitchell is averaging 21.5 points on 50 percent shooting in those games and has led UNT to a 3-1 mark. The Mean Green’s only loss when Mitchell shot 15 times came against No. 12 Creighton.
UNT is 1-3 when Mitchell scores less than 10 points, and that win was a 45-40 victory over Southeastern Louisiana. The 45 points UNT scored was the Mean Green’s lowest total in a win since a 37-36 triumph over Air Force in 1963.
The concerns for Benford and his players now extend beyond trying to get Mitchell going. UNT is now worried about morale and effort.
“The team as a whole didn’t come to play,” Franklin said Thursday night. “We played hard but not hard enough.”
UNT knows it will need the best from its entire roster if it is to pull out of its tailspin, but that is just part of the equation. The Mean Green also must find a way to get Mitchell going again as each opponent employs the same zone defenses and double teams to shut him down.
“That is what every team is going to do,” Franklin said. “We have to find a way to make the big fellow a little more aggressive and get him more shots. We have to get his engine going a little more.”
Getting Mitchell on track
A comparison between Tony Mitchell’s statistics last season and the first 18 games of this year:
Scoring average 14.7 13.8
Rebounding average 10.3 8.6
Field goal percentage 56.7 45.4
3-point field goal percentage 43.9 28.8