Mike Petersen took a look around the Super Pit on Monday afternoon and liked what he saw for a number of reasons — perhaps none bigger than the number of players on the floor.
TCU transfer Briesha Wynn and redshirt freshman Eboniey Jeter were on the floor for the first time, along with a host of proven veterans.
Even when one took into account three players who are out on a temporary basis, due mostly to injury, UNT’s second-year head coach felt like he has more to work with than at any point last year.
“We are significantly ahead of where we were on this day last year from the standpoint of having a bunch of kids back who understand what we are trying to do, terminology and effort level,” Petersen said. “We have good returners back and good new pieces that will be able to help us.”
Entering the year with what amounts to a fully stacked roster has Petersen — not to mention his players — feeling good about the Mean Green’s first season in Conference USA.
UNT will open the season at home Nov. 9 against Missouri-Kansas City while looking to build on an 11-19 finish and a first-round exit from the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
UNT showed signs of progress in its first season under Petersen, winning five straight in the middle of the season and suffering a series of near-misses in what could have been milestone wins. UNT took Oklahoma to the wire before falling by three and lost by five to Alabama.
UNT’s players say they have grown from the ups and downs they went through last season, when they played for their third coach in three years.
UNT went through the end of the Shanice Stephens era, had a one-season stint under Karen Aston before she left for Texas and then adapted to the up-tempo system Petersen installed last year.
Starting out in a familiar situation could make all the difference in the world for UNT’s players, who are hoping to help the Mean Green end a string of seven straight losing seasons.
“We know the system,” UNT guard Laura McCoy said. “This is the first time we have had a system in consecutive seasons since I’ve been here. We know the coach and what he expects out of us. We are confident that we can help the newcomers, and the veterans have played together and trust each other.”
Petersen and his players said the level of trust they have developed will be critical over the next few weeks as they try to incorporate a host of new players into the rotation.
UNT returns two players who averaged in double figures in scoring last season in sophomore forward Alexis Hyder (14.2 points per game) and junior guard BreAnna Dawkins (10.1 points), not to mention McCoy, who added 8.5 points per game while leading the team with 76 assists.
Wynn, who averaged 7.3 points per game during the 2011-12 season at TCU, is just one of a host of players who will eligible at UNT for the first time this season and are expected to make an impact.
“We are very excited,” Hyder said. “We won’t have a suit squad like we did last year. Everyone is going to be playing. That will add a lot of variety to our team. We will be tougher to guard.”
UNT aims to improve performance on road
Dan McCarney has maintained throughout his time at UNT that to build a winning program, it first has to win at home.
UNT has made major strides toward reaching that goal in the last three years, when the Mean Green has posted a 9-4 home record.
The next challenge UNT will take on is finding a way to win on the road. The Mean Green’s next chance will come Saturday in its Conference USA opener against Tulane in New Orleans.
UNT is just 2-13 on the road under McCarney, who often has taken the Mean Green on the road to face national powers. UNT lost at No. 9 Georgia earlier this year, at No. 1 LSU and No. 14 Kansas State last year and at No. 2 Alabama in 2011.
UNT’s other road loss this season came at Ohio.
The Mean Green has not won a road game since edging Florida Atlantic 20-14 in the fifth week of last season and has dropped six straight away from Apogee.
McCarney and his players said that they have to carry some of the positives they have displayed at home to the road.
“It’s all part of the process of guys believing we can win and blazing new trails and putting our names on something special, which is something we are trying to do every Saturday now,” McCarney said.
UNT running back Brandin Byrd said the Mean Green’s coaches and players have sat down and talked about what they need to do to rectify their struggles on the road.
They have yet to find a common theme, other than the quality of the opponents they have played.
“I don’t know why we struggle on the road,” Byrd said. “We have to execute and can’t let distractions get to us, whether it’s fans in the stands or being on the road. Anyone can play well at home. Getting wins on the road is hard.”
Coaches, players aware of UNT’s New Orleans history
UNT will return to a site often associated with some of the great moments in recent program history when the Mean Green faces Tulane in the Superdome.
UNT played in four straight New Orleans Bowls from 2001-04, when the Mean Green won four straight Sun Belt titles and put together a conference winning streak that reached 26 games with a win over Middle Tennessee to start the 2005 season.
The players and coaches who helped UNT put together that run have all left the program, but the Mean Green’s players and coaches acknowledged what those teams accomplished this week.
UNT quarterback Derek Thompson worked with former Mean Green standout defensive end Jeremiah Chapman over the summer and talked with him about that era.
“It was such a great experience for him,” Thompson said. “That place has a lot of memories for this university. I am hoping we can go down there, give it our all and come out with a ‘W’.”
McCarney said he has become familiar with the story of UNT’s teams from that era since taking over as the Mean Green’s head coach. Some of the best players in recent program history played for those teams, including two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Brandon Kennedy.
“We have not heard much about New Orleans in the last few days; it’s more since I took the job,” McCarney said. “That is part of the great history and tradition of this place — the great run that Darrell Dickey had and that North Texas had. I have heard a lot about it. I respect the past. I want to make anyone who has played at North Texas and played in those bowl games in New Orleans proud of us.”
UNT faces key series
UNT will play two of its main competitors for the C-USA title this weekend when the Mean Green travels to Rice on Friday and Colorado College on Sunday.
Colorado College was picked to repeat as C-USA champion in the preseason coaches poll, while Rice was picked to finish second and UNT third.
“This weekend is big,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “Both teams were picked ahead of us in the preseason poll and are good at home. We need to get some points this weekend.”
Colorado College is 2-0 in conference play and is the only team in the league without a loss or a tie just two games into the league campaign.
UNT (7-3-1, 1-0-1) is in second place in the West Division standings behind Colorado College and felt like it let a game slip away last week when it tied Southern Mississippi at home.
UNT took 30 shots against USM but only scored once on a Vanessa Ibewuike goal.
UNT beat Louisiana Tech 1-0 in its other game.
“We were just missing,” Hedlund said. “We are getting the opportunities, some of them right in front of the goal. They are the kinds of chances we buried at the beginning of the year. For whatever reason, they are not going in right now.”
While UNT is 5-1-1 in its last seven games, it still sees room for improvement.
“Our motto is to stay undefeated at home,” UNT defender Tori Adame said. “We still are, but we could have done a better job as a team finishing our chances and playing better as a team defensively.”
UNT will have a chance to reach that goal this weekend in what might be its key series of games this season.
UNT unbeaten in C-USA entering second weekend
UNT will head into the second weekend of C-USA play unbeaten after opening league play with wins over East Carolina and Middle Tennessee.
UNT swept ECU before coming back to beat the Blue Raiders, the Mean Green’s old Sun Belt rival, 3-1.
UNT has won three straight heading into weekend matches at Southern Miss and Tulsa.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.