Tony Benford and Mike Petersen started out their first seasons at North Texas a year ago in entirely different situations.
Benford inherited a team that was expected to be among the best in program history. Expectations weren’t nearly as high for the UNT women, who were playing for their third head coach in three years.
The duo found a little common ground Tuesday during Conference USA media day at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Marriott hotel, where both said their teams have made strides since a year ago when they were preparing for their final season in the Sun Belt Conference.
This season will mark UNT’s first in C-USA.
Being ahead of last year might sound a little strange for the UNT men, who lost Tony Mitchell and Roger Franklin. Benford readily admitted those players will be tough to replace, especially Mitchell, who was seltected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, but says the players he has now have a better understanding of what he wants to accomplish.
“We are ahead of where we were last year,” Benford said. “We were working on our offense yesterday and I put in Chris Jones, Alzee Williams, Jordan Williams, Keith Coleman and Brandan Walton, and those guys were doing a great job of executing. You could see the carryover from last year.”
UNT returns several of its key players, including Jones, Jordan Williams and Alzee Williams, a trio of guards who started much of last season. Jordan Williams led UNT with an average of 14.2 points per game.
What has Benford particularly excited is the additions he made to that core, including George Mason transfer Vertrail Vaughns, Cincinnati transfer Kelvin Gaines and former Mississippi signee Maurice Aniefiok.
UNT suffered a series of devastating injuries in Benford’s first year, including a broken foot that knocked Walton out for the year after just one game. Jones played in just 16 games after also breaking his foot, while Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton were lost for the season in the middle of the year.
“I have Rob Evans on my staff, who has been coaching for 40 years, and had Bart Lundy, who was at Marquette and was the head coach at High Point and Queens, and asked, ‘Have you experienced anything like this?’ And they both said no. It was a difficult year for us.”
Benford says the additions he made will help UNT move past that tough season and implement the up-tempo style he has maintained he wants to play during his short time with the Mean Green.
“I will put our guards up against anyone in the league with Chris Jones, TJ Taylor, Jordan Williams, Brandan Walton, Alzee Williams and Maurice Aniefiok and Vertrail Vaughns. Those are quality guards. We are going to play a little small ball at times.”
Benford pointed to some of the other teams in this season’s C-USA lineup, including Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee, that had successful seasons with athletic, up-tempo lineups.
UNT believes it has big men who can play in that type of system, even though none of the Mean Green’s forwards will be able to single-handedly replace Mitchell.
“We are bigger and more athletic than we were last year, when you look at Keith Coleman, Kelvin Gaines, Armani Flanigan and Colin Voss,” Benford said. “Those guys are all athletic and can block shots. Those guys are all great post defenders.”
Benford didn’t have to project where his team would finish in C-USA, which does not have a preseason coaches poll.
Petersen did, and he wasn’t afraid to set out some high expectations.
The second-year head coach picked the Mean Green to finish first, a move he has made — and talked about — at times in his career.
UNT was picked to finish 12th out of 16 teams and was one of just four teams that received a first-place vote. Middle Tennessee received eight first-place votes and was picked to win the league, while UTEP was picked second and received six first-place votes. Charlotte was picked fourth and had the other first-place vote.
“I’m different, I guess,” Petersen said. “I don’t know why coaches vote themselves last to lower expectations. I have news for you: Our fans think we’re supposed to win — it doesn’t matter where I vote us. Our players think we’re supposed to win — it doesn’t matter where I vote us. I just think that you have to have expectations of yourself.
“I ask our players to practice, compete, work and execute at a really high level. I don’t know why I wouldn’t have our back and pick us first. We ended up 12th. Obviously, I don’t agree with people.”
UNT has several of its key players returning, including sophomore forward Alexis Hyder and junior guard BreAnna Dawkins, who averaged 14.8 and 10.1 points, respectively. Senior point guard Laura McCoy, who tallied 8.5 points a game and led UNT with 76 assists, also is back.
UNT has added several key newcomers to that core, including four players who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules or injury. UNT also added four incoming recruits, three of whom were with the team over the summer.
“We have more interchangeable parts, and part of that is the seven we have back and the eight we have who didn’t play last year,” Petersen said. “We look a lot different physically. We are taller and faster.”
New floor on the way at Super Pit with eagle logo
UNT has a new center-hung scoreboard and new shot clocks at the Super Pit.
UNT will have a new floor as well, a school spokesman confirmed at C-USA media day.
The new floor will feature the school’s new eagle logo at center court. The same logo was painted at center court of the new Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility.
Evans returns to practice
Senior forward Ash’Lynne Evans has returned to practice after an MRI on her knee revealed no structural damage.
Evans missed some practice time earlier this fall.
“She just has old knees,” Petersen said. “We are going to have to work through it with her and monitor it.”
Sacks will be critical in UNT-MTSU showdown
UNT’s offensive line will face one of its biggest challenges of the season Saturday against Middle Tennessee when it comes to protecting quarterback Derek Thompson.
The Mean Green has excelled at stopping opposing pass rushes and led the nation in sacks allowed last season, when UNT gave up just six on the year.
MTSU has long been known for getting to opposing quarterbacks and enters the week tied with Louisiana Tech for the lead in C-USA with 16 sacks. The Blue Raiders lead the league when it comes the number of yards its opponents have lost due to sacks at 108.
“They attack the quarterback and collapse pockets,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We are doing a really good job again of protecting our quarterbacks.”
The number of sacks UNT has allowed is particularly impressive considering the Mean Green has faced national power Georgia and dealt with injuries to starting tackles Antonio Johnson and LaChris Anyiam.
Both have undergone arthroscopic knee surgery this season.
UNT to have tuneup before key weekend match
UNT will face Charlotte on Friday in its final match before taking on Marshall on Sunday in a key C-USA match.
The Mean Green (11-9, 3-1 C-USA) suffered its first conference loss last week at Tulsa and will look to bounce back against Charlotte, which is 10-9 and 0-4 in league play. Marshall (9-10) also is 3-1 in C-USA play.
UNT to host pair of weekend matches
UNT will host Texas-San Antonio on Friday and Charlotte on Sunday, a weekend series that will offer the Mean Green a chance to recover from a pair of losses last week.
UNT (7-5-1, 1-2-1) fell at Rice (4-0) and Colorado College (3-2). Those teams were the only two picked ahead of UNT in the preseason C-USA poll.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.