North Texas knew months ago that its first basketball season in Conference USA would pose a host of challenges.
The Mean Green made the move up from the Sun Belt and had several new teams to become familiar with, even though a few rivals from its old league tagged along for the ride.
The journey was one that turned out to be bumpy at times for the Mean Green.
The UNT men broke even at 16-16 and won a C-USA tournament game, taking down Rice in overtime before bowing out in the second round with a loss to Tulane.
The UNT women didn’t last quite as long in El Paso, losing their first-round game to Louisiana Tech and finishing 12-18.
While neither team finished the way it had hoped — and with 6-10 records in C-USA play — both men’s coach Tony Benford and women’s coach Mike Petersen said they saw signs of progress and reason to be confident about the future of their programs.
“We made a lot of progress and know what it takes to compete in this league,” Benford said. “Our goal is to win a conference championship and get to the NCAA tournament. We are going to continue to work toward and recruit toward that. Our program is headed in the right direction with all the young players we have coming back.”
UNT knocked off Texas A&M on New Year’s Eve for its biggest win of the season and won four straight C-USA games late in the year.
Benford cited UNT’s nonconference game at A&M as well as games at Oklahoma and BYU and at home agianst Stephen F. Austin as indications that UNT played a challenging schedule.
UNT was streaky while facing that slate. The Mean Green put together three winning streaks of at least three games but also endured a costly five-game slide in the middle of conference play.
UNT will have several players back who played key roles in an up-and-down year. Leading scorer Jordan Williams, a junior who averaged 12.0 points per game, will return along with point guard Chris Jones and forward Colin Voss.
While UNT has some key players returning, it will have to restock in the backcourt after losing senior guards Alzee Williams, Brandan Walton and Vertrail Vaughns.
Alzee Williams ranked second on the team with an average of 11.1 points per game and finished 18th in UNT history with 1,064 career points. Vaughns averaged 7.3 points, while Walton posted 7.2 points per game and led UNT with 42 3-pointers on the season.
The trio accounted for 36.8 percent of the Mean Green’s scoring.
UNT will bring in San Jacinto College guard Carrington Ward, who is averaging 16.3 points as a sophomore, to help fill the void.
UNT also will add forwards Greg Wesley and Jeremy Combs. Wesley, whom TexasHoops.com ranked No. 9 in 2013, sat out this season while working to become academically eligible. Combs is ranked No. 13 in the class of 2014 and averaged 21.2 points and 12.3 rebounds as a senior.
UNT’s hope is that Wesely and Combs, who are both listed at 6-foot-7, can bolster its frontcourt. UNT ranked 14th out of 16 teams in C-USA play with an average deficit of 2.9 rebounds per game.
The UNT women also will return most of their key players after pulling off a big upset in C-USA play and being competitive in nearly all of their league games.
UNT toppled UTEP, which won 24 games through the C-USA tournament and lost four other conference games by three points or fewer.
“It’s one of those years where we made progress, but our record isn’t going to show it. It ended really disappointingly,” Petersen said following UNT’s loss to Louisiana Tech in the C-USA tournament. “This is not the effort and performance we wanted, but for the most part, this group competed very well and played very well against good teams. We just didn’t close games.”
Forwards Briesha Wynn and Alexis Hyder each averaged 11.3 points to lead UNT and will return next year. Wynn added 7.0 rebounds per game, while Hyder added 6.1.
That duo helped keep UNT afloat during an injury-plagued season that saw the Mean Green lose point guard Candice Adams, forward Acheil Tac, shooting guard BreAnna Dawkins and small forward Joh’Vonna Darrington to major injuries.
Each of those players will return next season, when UNT will have to replace four players, including a pair of key contributors in Laura McCoy and Desiree Nelson.
Nelson averaged 4.0 points while starting 20 games.
McCoy will be even tougher to replace. The senior averaged 5.4 points per game but also ranked second on the team with 48 assists while handling the point guard duties most of the year.
McCoy finished her career with 164 3-pointers, the second-highest total in school history.
UNT signed three players to help fill the void left by those seniors, including Richardson Berkner point guard Jaileen Thomas and Frisco Liberty forward Bria Frierson. Thomas is ranked 21st among seniors in the state by Premier Basketball Report, while Frierson is ranked 39th. UNT also signed Megan Womack, a post player from Stroud, Okla.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.