North Texas guard Jordan Williams took note of what happened when Columbia took on national power Michigan State last week.
So did teammate Brandan Walton and UNT head coach Tony Benford.
And they weren’t the only ones. That was how well the Lions played against what is now the top-ranked team in the country.
Columbia led by four at halftime and had a chance to pull off the upset before going scoreless for the final 4:27 as the Spartans pulled away for a 62-53 win.
UNT will face plenty of challenges this week when it plays its final three games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, but its first game — against the same Columbia team that gave the Spartans fits — could be the biggest challenge of them all. The Mean Green will face the Lions at 4 p.m. today before taking on Idaho on Friday and Portland on Saturday.
All three games will be played at the University of Portland in Portland, Ore.
“We saw Columbia play against Michigan State. They jumped out on them,” Williams said. “It was impressive. We know that we are going to have to play hard.”
Facing that challenge in three consecutive days is a task that could benefit UNT in the long run. This week’s event will mirror the Conference USA tournament at the end of the year.
“It’s really good to play three games in a span like that,” Benford said. “We will get to play quality teams from different leagues and see different styles. It’s a good format for us that will hopefully get us ready for the postseason down the road.”
Columbia would qualify as one of those quality teams. The Lions (1-2) lost a close game to Manhattan in addition to falling to Michigan State and are led by sophomore guard Grant Mullins, who is averaging 12.0 points per game. Cory Osetkowski, a 6-11 center who can cause matchup problems, is adding 9.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
The Lions run a Princeton-style offense that relies on ball movement, 3-point shots and cuts to the basket. UNT got a taste of what Columbia will run today two years ago and struggled in a 72-57 loss in the LMU Classic in Los Angeles.
“They will run a lot of picks and pops,” said Walton, a senior guard who played in that game. “We will have to play smart. Those back cuts are hard to guard, but we will be prepared.”
The Mean Green has had a week to prepare for Columbia following a 92-78 win over Nicholls State that pushed the Mean Green to 2-1. The extra time to get ready certainly won’t hurt UNT, which has leaned on Alzee Williams early in the season to carry the load offensively.
Alzee Williams is averaging 20.7 points per game, while Jordan Williams is adding 12.0 and junior guard Chris Jones 11.3.
UNT’s backcourt is expected to be its strength and should become even stronger over the next few weeks as Marquette transfer T.J. Taylor regains his strength. Taylor, who sat out last year, is coming back from a knee injury and made his first appearance of the season against Nicholls State.
UNT’s depth will be tested this week in Portland.
“We are playing some pretty good teams at a neutral site and will be able to get our confidence back and work on some things we have been working on in practice,” Walton said. “Playing back to back will test our stamina and our team chemistry early in the season.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.