When North Texas senior guard Brandan Walton took a look at where the Mean Green stands on the eve of Conference USA play on Wednesday, he saw a team with a long way to go.
Walton and coach Tony Benford see that assessment as a positive for UNT as it enters its first season in the league.
UNT has dealt with a host of injuries throughout its nonconference slate and is in the process of incorporating several players who will be critical to the Mean Green’s success.
The process won’t be completed for a while, but UNT is a lot closer to being the team it thinks it can be than it was a few weeks ago and is still growing. That growth could bode well for UNT tonight when it opens C-USA play against Southern Mississippi.
“We can contend for the title,” Walton said. “I think we are one of the best teams in the league and still have a lot of room for growth. We have a lot of depth.”
The Golden Eagles were widely considered to be among the elite teams in C-USA heading into the season and have solidified that status by running out to a 13-2 start, with their only losses coming against No. 7 Louisville and Western Kentucky.
UNT (9-5) is off to a good start as well and has won its last four games. That run has coincided with the Mean Green getting all of its key players on the court.
Mean Green forwards Kelvin Gaines and Colin Voss dealt with foot and thigh injuries, respectively, that kept them out of practice for weeks early in the season. Gaines has played in three games.
Transfer guard T.J. Taylor missed UNT’s first two games with a knee injury.
Voss, Gaines and Taylor are just a few of the new players UNT has had to incorporate this year. Vertrail Vaughns and Maurice Aniefiok, a pair of key guards, are both in their first season at UNT.
UNT doesn’t see the lack of experience among some of its key players as a potential roadblock in its path toward a solid first season in C-USA.
“Hopefully we can catch some of that magic that coach Mac [Dan McCarney] and the football team had,” Benford said. “No one expected them to do a whole lot this year, and look at what they accomplished. We know it will be a challenge, but we are excited to be in the league.”
Benford said he believes that UNT is headed in the right direction and that its nonconference schedule has prepared the Mean Green for C-USA play.
UNT has nine players who have started at least one game and will have plenty of players to turn to in C-USA action. Alzee Williams is averaging 14.4 points per game to lead the Mean Green.
“This is the first time I have had every scholarship player healthy since I took the job,” Benford said. “That really helps. We have had better competition in practice.”
Having all of its players available will give UNT a lift heading into what Benford and his players say will be a tough conference season.
“It’s a great league with a lot of great teams, especially at the top,” Benford said. “Our nonconference schedule prepared us. It was comparable to everyone in our league.”
A game agianst Southern Miss will let UNT know right away how prepared it is for the C-USA season. The Golden Eagles are allowing 62.1 points per game — best in the league.
“They do a great job and play all zone,” Benford said. “They are not very big, but they are athletic and tough. They remind me of an old Big East team, they play so hard. They will be the toughest team we play all year.”
Senior guard Neil Watson is averaging 11.8 points for Southern Miss, which has four players in its starting lineup averaging at least 9.2 points per game.
“It will be a tough league,” Gaines said. “We have what most people think is the toughest team in the conference [tonight]. I love it. It will show where we are at and where we need to be.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.