North Texas will have a little bigger cheering section than would normally be the case this week when the Mean Green heads to Florida for a two-game road trip.
Kelvin Gaines, a key player off the Mean Green’s bench, is a native of Ocala, Fla., and will have plenty of family members and friends making the short drive to both Florida International and Florida Atlantic.
UNT (12-13, 3-8 Conference USA) will face FIU (13-13, 5-6) in the first game of the trip at 6 p.m. today at FIU Arena.
“I have quite a few people coming,” Gaines said. “I’m looking forward it.”
Gaines hasn’t been back to Florida since he arrived at UNT in the offseason after transferring from Cincinnati. It’s been a tough first year for the junior, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot shortly after arriving in Denton.
Gaines didn’t make his debut with the Mean Green until Dec. 15 and has played in just 13 games. Even though he has started six times, Gaines has scored just four points while averaging 1.4 rebounds a game as he works his way back into shape.
“The injury slowed him down,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “His lateral moment is not there. It takes big guys longer to recover from [foot] injuries because of their size.
“He is improving and is more active.”
That improvement was evident in UNT’s 53-51 win over East Carolina last week when Gaines scored his second basket of the season and finished with three rebounds.
Gaines’ performance was a positive sign for the Mean Green, which has played in a zone defense extensively this season. UNT is relying on Gaines and fellow center Keith Coleman to form a solid final line of defense.
“We need them to be active, especially in the zone,” Benford said of Gaines and Coleman. “You need that big guy to protect the rim. They did that the other night.”
Coleman finished with four points and three rebounds against ECU.
UNT’s performance defensively against the Pirates was its best since a 61-41 win over Texas A&M that is arguably the highlight of the Mean Green’s season.
Gaines is hoping his outing against ECU is a sign that he is returning to top form.
“My foot is fine,” Gaines said. “It’s a matter of getting used to playing with the players on the team and how everyone plays.
“I feel better and quicker. Now I have to get into shape. That has been the hard part.”
UNT will need all the help it can get from Gaines as it heads into this key road trip. The Mean Green sits in a tie for 13th place out of 16 teams in C-USA and still has a chance to earn a bye in the conference tournament.
The top four seeds receive a double bye, while seeds five through nine receive a bey in the first round. UNT is two games out of a bye and will face two of the teams it is trying to run down this week.
FAU (10-16) is also 5-6 in conference play.
“This is a big trip, because if we can take care of this week and win two games, we can still get a bye,” Benford said.
Reaching that goal is UNT’s focus, but making Gaines’ trip back to Florida a successful one would be special for the Mean Green as well.
“He [Gaines] hasn’t talked about it, but I’m sure it’s a big trip for him,” UNT guard Alzee Williams said. “We are trying to look at it as a business trip.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.