Perhaps the most important aspect of taking on any challenge in college athletics is knowing what lies ahead.
North Texas and head coach Tony Benford officially reached that point Wednesday, when Tony Mitchell announced that he would submit his name for the NBA draft.
UNT’s top player won’t be around for its first season in Conference USA, and the Mean Green will look to rebound from its most disappointing season in recent memory.
UNT was expected to challenge for the Sun Belt Conference title, thanks largely to the return of Mitchell and the Mean Green’s six other top scorers from a team that lost in the Sun Belt tournament final.
Injuries and a host of other factors prevented UNT from reaching its goals in a 12-20 season that ended with a 74-55 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament — the Mean Green’s first opening-round loss in seven years.
“It’s always disappointing when you don’t reach your goals, but you never know how a season is going to play out,” said Benford, who just completed his first season at UNT. “No one could have predicted that Brandan Walton would break his foot and that Chris Jones, Justin Patton and Jacob Holmen would all be out.
“If you are going to have a special season, you need everyone to be healthy. We weren’t, and that hurt our team. Anyone who doesn’t see that doesn’t know basketball.”
The question now is whether or not UNT can recover from its first losing season in nine years in its first season in C-USA. UNT will make the move to what is considered a higher-level conference this summer.
UNT will have to rebuild a large portion of its roster. Replacing Mitchell would be tough enough. The former Dallas Pinkston standout averaged 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game while setting a school record with 87 blocked shots.
What makes the situation UNT faces even more daunting is the fact that Roger Franklin (11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds) and three other seniors have completed their college careers.
Holmen averaged 5.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 15 games before having to give up basketball due to a string of concussions. Patton averaged 3.2 points in 19 games before a knee injury cut his career short, while Niko Stojiljkovic started eight games and averaged 2.6 points and 2.4 rebounds a night.
UNT has just one player taller than 6-foot-6 returning in junior forward Keith Coleman, a 6-10 forward who averaged 1.3 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.
UNT will add high school forwards Josh Friar and Tony Nunn, who are 6-7 and 6-8, respectively, in addition to Greg Wesley. Wesley, a 6-7 forward, is No. 9 on TexasHoops.com’s list of the top players in the state in the class of 2013.
Mitchell mentioned Wesley when addressing how UNT would get along without him.
Benford acknowledged that UNT will have to add to that core of frontcourt players, likely with a few experienced junior college players.
“I’ve been on the road the last five days and I have two coaches on the road now,” Benford said Wednesday. “We are going to get quality players. We know how to get quality players and are going to get the job done.”
UNT will have a much more experienced backcourt next season, led by Walton, Jordan Williams, Alzee Williams and Jones. Jordan Williams led UNT with an average of 14.2 points a game, while Alzee Williams added 11.1 points. Jones averaged 9.2 points but missed 16 games with a broken foot.
Jones was leading the Sun Belt with an average of 5.1 assists per game when he was injured in a loss to Western Kentucky. Freshman P.J. Hardwick filled in and scored 3.7 points a game while handing out a 2.5 assists.
Walton also will return after breaking his foot in UNT’s season opener and spending the 2012-13 season as a redshirt. The Mean Green missed Walton, who averaged 8.8 points and made 54 3-pointers while shooting 36.7 percent from behind the arc as a junior.
UNT shot just 28.5 percent from 3-point range this season, a total that ranked last in the Sun Belt.
UNT will add 6-3 shooting guard T.J. Taylor. The former Denison standout spent time at Oklahoma and Marquette before landing at UNT.
Taylor was a three-time all-state selection at Denison and a consensus Top 150 player nationally in the class of 2010.
Benford will look to that group to lead the way next season.
“We have some guys who know they need to step up and be leaders in Brandan Walton, Chris Jones and Jordan Williams,” Benford said. “We are going to add some quality players to the group. We are moving forward and are excited about Conference USA.”
UNT will have a decidedly different look without Mitchell and Franklin, two of the top players on a team that fell short of expectations and couldn’t turn its season around in the Sun Belt tournament.
“Everyone thought we were going to make a run in the tournament,” Jordan Williams said. “It hurts to fall short.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .