There was a time before North Texas opened the season a few months ago when Armani Flannigan seemed destined to be a major part of the Mean Green’s plans — if not a star.
The Central Wyoming transfer won the dunk contest and went on to score 12 points in an exhibition game at UNT’s season-opening Basketball Madness event in October.
Flannigan nearly vanished at that point, playing sparingly while trying to carve out a role and make the transition to playing at the Division I level. The process is one the 6-8 forward appears closer than ever to completing heading into UNT’s game tonight at Texas-San Antonio.
Flannigan has started each of UNT’s last two games and grabbed a career-high seven rebounds to go with four points and three blocks in a win over Florida International last week. He followed that performance by posting two points, two rebounds and a block in nine minutes while starting a second straight game Saturday, when the Mean Green beat Florida Atlantic.
That level of production might not sound like much, but it represents a key step forward for UNT, which has struggled to compete in the paint throughout the Conference USA season. The Mean Green heads into tonight’s game ranked 14th out of 16 teams in the league in rebounding with an average deficit of 2.8 per game.
“Armani is getting more comfortable and confident in himself,” said forward Kelvin Gaines, another member of UNT’s frontcourt rotation. “He knows what we need from him. What people are seeing on the floor is what we are seeing in practice.”
That improvement is coming at just the right time for UNT, which has won three straight games and is hoping to continue its late run at securing a bye in the upcoming C-USA tournament. UNT (14-13, 5-8 C-USA) is in a three-way tie with Charlotte and FAU for the No. 9 seed and the last bye heading into its game against UTSA (8-18, 4-9).
Flannigan has played a role in putting UNT in position to earn a bye, which both he and coach Tony Benford attribute to the experience the junior has gained over the course of the season. Flannigan had to finish his two-year degree in Wyoming to be eligible to transfer to UNT and didn’t arrive in Denton until just before the beginning of the school year.
By then, Flannigan was pretty far behind his teammates in terms of adapting to new surroundings, coaches and teammates — not to mention learning UNT’s offense. His high-end athleticism helped him mask a lack of experience in a glorified pickup game during the preseason event and allowed him to outshine his teammates in the dunk contest.
Once UNT started playing in competitive games, fitting in became much harder for the 200-pound forward. Flannigan enters tonight’s game averaging just 2.5 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, although he does have 27 blocks — six short of 10th place for a single season in school history, despite playing just 10.5 minutes per game.
“That was a factor in me not being able to get going early,” Flannigan said of his late arrival on campus. “I was trying to get used to everyone and find my role, which is to bring energy, block shots and rebound.
“It was hard, but I had to stay motivated and focus on the main goal, which is winning.”
UNT has shown signs that it could be learning to do just that after an up-and-down start. The Mean Green beat Texas A&M on New Year’s Eve, the highlight of a four-game winning streak, but then lost eight of its next 10 games.
UNT has broken out of that slump and won its last three games, all by two points in nail-biting fashion. East Carolina and FAU missed potential go-ahead 3s in the closing seconds during the streak, while Chris Jones hit a game-winning runner against FIU.
“We are playing well at the right time of the year,” Benford said.
Flannigan’s play of late might not be the biggest reason for UNT’s run, but it has been a factor.
“Armani is starting to get used to what we are doing,” Benford said. “He has to continue to be aggressive. I have talked to him about being our energy guy — a guy who rebounds, defends, blocks shots and runs the floor.”
Benford says that Flannigan’s offensive game will continue to develop throughout the rest of a season that has been tough at times for the Rockford, Ill., native.
“At first it was kind of iffy,” Flannigan said of his feelings about the way his career was unfolding at UNT. “You want to play more and contribute, but I found my role and have a great relationship with the guys and the coaching staff.”
Flannigan and his teammates say his progress is just another sign that the team is finding its form at the right time.
“We need to ride this momentum to the end of the season,” Flannigan said. “Everyone is excited in the locker room. The coaches are excited. There is a lot of positive energy.”
Flannigan is hoping the way he has helped UNT late this year is a sign of what is to come in his final season with the Mean Green. He will have a whole summer to prepare before next season’s tip-off event.
“This will carry over into next year,” Flannigan said. “I want to finish off this year strong and I will be here for the summer. That will help a lot.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.