There might not be a more important asset for basketball teams in February than momentum.
Teams that have it on their side often roll into conference tournaments, which for teams like North Texas and others in the Sun Belt Conference are the gateway to the NCAA tournament.
Neither the Mean Green men nor women have much mojo on their side, something they will look to change today in a key doubleheader against Florida International at the Super Pit that will begin with the women’s game at 5 p.m.
The UNT men (8-17) have lost five straight to fall to a 3-11 in Sun Belt play, and they are in 10th place in the 11-team league.
The UNT women (9-14, 8-6) are still in the hunt for the Sun Belt West Division title, but they are coming off one of their worst performances of the year in a 76-62 loss to Western Kentucky on Thursday.
“We have taken a few losses in a row,” UNT guard Jordan Williams said of the men. “This would be a big win for us to get at home and hopefully see it carry over to a couple of road games.”
UNT has been on the verge of breaking out of its late-season funk on multiple occasions but has struggled to get over the hump. The Mean Green blew a late lead and lost in overtime at Arkansas State last week and came back from 11 down with less than seven minutes left against WKU only to see the Hilltoppers pull away for a 70-59 win.
“Going into this week, we wanted to take care of home and get back on the winning side,” UNT men’s coach Tony Benford said. “We are well prepared going into every game. We are giving great effort. It comes down to execution and concentration.”
UNT has failed to execute lately, which Benford and his players say can be attributed in part to a series of injuries that has put several key players out for the year. The Mean Green played just eight players in its loss to WKU, including three who combined to score a single point in 31 minutes off the bench.
“Every game is something different,” UNT guard P.J. Hardwick said. “A lack of depth is one thing. A lack of execution is another. We just have to get it done. There are no excuses.”
UNT will try to break through against an FIU team that beat the Mean Green 70-64 last month.
Junior forward Tymell Murphy, a former South Plains College standout, leads FIU (13-10, 8-6 Sun Belt) with an average of 15.2 points per game.
Tony Mitchell is posting 13.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game for UNT.
There might not be a better example of the importance of winning than the UNT women’s team, which has struggled mightily in February over the last few years.
UNT matched its win total from the previous two Februarys combined when it picked up a key win over ASU last week. UNT, which is 1-1 this month, was a combined 1-11 in the month over the previous two seasons.
“We talked about finishing strong because that has been a real problem for this program through the years,” UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen said. “We have already won as many games in February as have been won the last two years. We are 1-1. We need to establish a tradition of finishing strong. I have always been happy with my teams because they have usually finished strong.”
Building that tradition in Petersen’s first season at UNT will be critical for the Mean Green, and not just because the West Division title is up for grabs. The top five teams in the Sun Belt receive a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
Middle Tennessee (13-1) is well on its way to grabbing one of those byes. There are seven other teams in the league with between six and 10 wins in league play who are in the mix.
A win today would help UNT significantly when it comes to the chase for those byes. FIU (14-9, 8-6) also is in the hunt.
FIU guard Jerica Coley leads the Sun Belt in scoring at 25.4 points per game.
UNT will counter with a trio of players who are averaging double figures, including Alexis Hyder. The freshman is averaging 13.2 points a game.
Hyder finished with seven points Thursday when WKU hammered UNT. That loss prevented UNT from jumping into a tie with ASU atop the West. UNT is a game behind ASU and in a tie with Arkansas-Little Rock for second place.
“This becomes an important game because of seeding and the division,” Petersen said. “It’s also important because there is not a person in our program who was happy with the way we played Thursday. We need to come out and make sure we play the right way.”
Jones begins pool rehab
The UNT men are holding out hope that guard Chris Jones could return in time to play in the conference tourney.
Jones broke his foot Dec. 29. He started running in a pool Friday.
“We are not going to put him in jeopardy, but it would take a lot of pressure off of us if we can get him back,” Benford said. “It would give us a guy who can create for himself and his teammates.”
UNT averaged 68.2 points in the 13 games Jones played before being injured, a number that has dropped to 63.8 points since.
Jones is averaging 10.2 points and 5.0 assists per game.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.