Justin Patton laid out a plan for the end of his college career — one he thought would finally lead him to the NCAA tournament — a few years ago.
Seemingly nothing has gone right for the Louisiana native since.
Patton transferred from Grambling to North Texas prior to last season believing he would be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, only to have his appeal denied. He sat out a year and suffered a serious knee injury along the way.
Surgery and constant knee pain followed, limiting his playing time and reducing his ability to make an impact when he became eligible at UNT, which has struggled to meet high expectations in his senior season.
The way Patton has remained positive through those trials and tribulations has made an impression on his teammates, who say he will be vital to their chances of making a late run in the Sun Belt Conference standings, beginning today with a game at Louisiana-Lafayette (7-15, 3-8 SBC).
“We can get on a roll,” Patton said. “We are not going to be down the whole year. The coaching staff is working really hard, and we are working really hard. We are going to get through it. We have had a lot of injuries this year that have hampered us.”
Patton’s was among the most devastating.
UNT coach Tony Benford said over the summer that there was a good chance the 6-foot-7-inch forward would start for the Mean Green (8-14, 3-8) because of his ability as a defender and the all-around talent that made him a second-team All-SWAC selection as a junior.
Patton’s chances to display that ability vanished three weeks before UNT’s first game this season. Patton was trying to defend during practice when his right knee buckled, causing cartilage damage.
“It was devastating — one of the worst things that has ever happened to me,” Patton said. “I haven’t been full-speed since.”
Patton had surgery and recovered to the point where he can play, but tightness in his knee has limited him throughout the season. He has scored in double figures just once — on Jan. 5 when he tallied 16 points in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe — and is averaging 3.3 points per game.
Patton averaged 13.2 points a game and led the SWAC with an average of 7.1 rebounds as a Grambling junior in the 2010-11 season.
“It’s been tough on him,” UNT guard Alzee Williams said. “Before the knee surgery, he was moving really well. It affected him. He would have helped us a lot if he was 100 percent.”
What has made the situation even tougher for Patton is that the injury is just the latest setback he has encountered late in his career.
Before he pulled on a UNT jersey for the first time, Patton was best remembered by Mean Green fans for a 26-point, 10-rebound performance at the Super Pit while he was playing for Grambling.
The Tigers advanced to the SWAC tournament final in 2011 but fell to Alabama State.
What was nearly as tough to deal with for Patton was the news that came after the season, when Grambling was banned from the 2012 postseason for poor performance on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate report.
Patton says he thought he would be able to transfer and play right away at another Division I school because of that ban, and he chose UNT. The NCAA waiver he was hoping for never arrived, relegating him to the bench last season.
“It really ended up being a positive,” Patton said. “I was able to catch up on my schoolwork and get my grades right so I will be able to graduate on time. I got a chance to work on my game, too.”
His opportunity to display improvement is essentially gone because of the knee injury.
“It’s been tough for him mentally,” Benford said. “He put in so much time to get ready for his senior year. He had a solid career at Grambling and was going to have a chance to play here at a higher level, but because of injuries, he hasn’t been able to do that.
“He’s really only about 60 percent. It’s hard for him to guard perimeter players now.”
Patton has found ways to give UNT a boost both on and off the floor despite his limitations.
He scored eight points in 10 minutes in a loss to ULL and has served as a mentor to some of UNT’s younger players.
“He has been a great teammate and has a great attitude,” freshman guard P.J. Hardwick said. “The injuries have made it tough on him, but he has been very positive.”
Maintaining that outlook has been tough for Patton during a time when nothing has turned out the way he had hoped.
“I’ve been down the last couple of years, but I have a good coaching staff and teammates who have tried to pick me up,” Patton said. “It’s been tough. I’m not going to lie. I will get through it. It’s part of life.”
Patton has looked to savor the special moments during his senior season, including today’s game. Patton is from Bossier City, La., less than four hours from Lafayette. Several members of Patton’s family will be at today’s game.
Patton had one of his best games of the season the last time UNT played the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“I think he can help us if he continues to get healthy,” Benford said. “We are going to need everyone to help us down the stretch.”
Benford doesn’t know how much Patton will be able to help, but he knows that the senior will keep on fighting and give everything he has as he nears the end of a journey that hasn’t turned out the way he expected.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .