Brandan Walton hit one of the more dramatic shots in the Sun Belt Conference tournament a year ago, a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that helped lift North Texas past Louisiana-Lafayette in the opening round.
UNT will open this year’s tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., on Friday hoping for a similar outcome in another showdown with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Both the UNT men and women will face ULL, one of the Mean Green’s longtime Sun Belt rivals, in its last appearance in the tournament before moving to Conference USA. The UNT women are the No. 6 seed and will face the 11th-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns in a 2:30 p.m. game at Summit Arena. The UNT men are the No. 9 seed and take on ULL, the No. 8 seed, at 6:30 p.m. on the Convocation Center Court.
UNT advanced to the final for the third straight season last year after Walton’s shot helped give the Mean Green a 65-62 win over the Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Mean Green (12-19, 7-13 SBC) was the consensus favorite to win the Sun Belt West Division in the preseason coaches’ poll and was considered a likely candidate to advance to the tournament final again.
The season has not unfolded as expected for UNT, which struggled for much of the season with injuries and the adjustment to a new coaching staff led by Tony Benford and will face a long road to get to the final.
The winner of the UNT-ULL men’s game will face Middle Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
MTSU (27-4, 19-1) cruised to the Sun Belt regular-season title and has won 16 straight games.
UNT faced ULL (12-19, 8-12) twice in the regular season and lost both games. The Ragin’ Cajuns knocked off UNT in its Sun Belt opener 80-76 and then hammered the Mean Green 105-74 in Lafayette, La., on Jan. 31.
UNT’s 31-point margin of defeat against the Ragin’ Cajuns was its largest in a Sun Belt game since the 2002-03 season.
The Mean Green didn’t have starting point guard Chris Jones for that game, one of 16 games he missed with a broken foot.
UNT is hoping the return of Jones, who played in the Mean Green’s last two games of the regular season and is averaging 9.5 points and 4.9 assists a game, will help turn the tide in its third meeting this season against ULL.
UNT lost both of its games against MTSU, falling 75-57 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and 72-64 in Denton.
The UNT women (11-18, 10-10) are hoping to continue their dominance over The Ragin’ Cajuns (9-20, 3-17) after sweeping the season series.
UNT beat ULL 72-59 at home and 64-46 in Lafayette.
The winner of the UNT-ULL women’s game will face third-seeded Western Kentucky at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Hilltoppers swept the season series from UNT, winning 82-80 in Bowling Green, Ky., and 76-62 at the Super Pit.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
SUN BELT TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
HOT SPRINGS, ARK.; FRIDAY-MARCH 11
Game 1 — No. 6 Western Kentucky vs. No. 11 Louisiana-Monoroe (Summit Arena), 6 p.m.
Game 2 — No. 8 UL-Lafayette vs. No. 9 North Texas (Convention Center), 6:30 p.m.
Game 3 — No. 7 Florida Atlantic vs. No. Troy (SA), 8:30 p.m.
Game 4 — No. 4 Florida International vs. No. 5 Arkansas-Little Rock (CC), 6 p.m.
Game 5 — No. 1 Middle Tennessee vs. ULL-UNT winner (SA), 6:30 p.m.
Game 6 — No. 3 South Alabama vs. WKU-ULM winner (CC), 8:30 p.m.
Game 7 — No. 2 Arkansas State vs. FAU-Troy winner (SA), 9 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner (SA), 6:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner (SA), 9 p.m.
Championship — Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner (SA), 6 p.m., ESPN
Game 1 — No. 9 Louisiana-Monroe vs. No. 8 Florida Atlantic (Summit Arena), noon
Game 2 — No. 10 Troy vs. No. 7 South Alabama (Convention Center), 2 p.m.
Game 3 — No. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. No. 6 North Texas (SA), 2:30 p.m.
Game 4 — No. 1 Middle Tennessee vs. ULM-FAU winner (SA), noon
Game 5 — No. 5 Florida International vs. No. 4 Arkansas State (CC), 11:30 a.m.
Game 6 — No. 2 Arkansas-Little Rock vs. Troy-USA winner (SA), 2:30 p.m.
Game 7 — No. 3 Western Kentucky vs. ULL-UNT winner (CC), 2 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner (SA), noon
Game 9 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner (SA), 2:30 p.m.
Championship — Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner (SA), 1 p.m., ESPNU