Tony Mitchell was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Preseason Player of the Year on Wednesday, when the league’s coaches made North Texas a unanimous pick to win the conference’s West Division.
None of that was a surprise.
What had UNT head coach Tony Benford and his players a little miffed was Mitchell being the lone Mean Green player on a list of 15 honored by the league.
Junior guard Alzee Williams didn’t find a spot on the Sun Belt’s first, second or third teams despite averaging 10.5 points a game last season. Neither did senior forward Jacob Holmen, who came on late in the season to help lead UNT to the Sun Belt tournament final.
“Everyone talks about how much talent we have, but we have only one player on the all-conference team,” said Benford, who is in his first year at UNT. “I don’t know how much talent we have based on that.”
UNT believes it has a ton, not only because Mitchell, Williams and Holmen are back, but also because of the return of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams, a pair of sophomores who were academically ineligible for the second semester of last season.
Benford and Mitchell said they believe UNT has a lot more than just one all-conference-caliber player on the roster.
Just having Mitchell to guide the way might be enough to push UNT toward the top of the league, especially if he lives up to expectations.
Mitchell averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game last season, when he played in 23 games after becoming eligible at the semester break. The 6-foot-8 forward was even better in Sun Belt play, when he led the league in scoring (15.9 points a game), rebounding (11.8 per game), 3-point percentage (47.1) and blocks (3.1 per game).
Benford expects Mitchell to take a dramatic step forward this season, thanks largely to the extra time he has had to prepare. Mitchell couldn’t even practice with the Mean Green until the Christmas break when he became eligible last season and was thrown into the fire right away.
Mitchell spent the summer going to a series of camps for top-level NBA prospects, including the LeBron James Skills Academy.
“Tony has progressed a lot since last season,” Benford said. “He had a great summer. We worked with him on his fundamentals and tried to tighten his game up. He had a chance to go to the Amare Stoudemire camp and the LeBron James camp and play against some high-level competition. That helped him. He has worked extremely hard and is getting better every day. I feel fortunate to get a chance to coach him.”
Mitchell was named the Sun Belt freshman of the year last season and now has added to his list of accomplishments heading into what is expected to be his final season at UNT before heading to the NBA.
“It’s not my main focus,” Mitchell said of individual accolades. “We are working on getting ready for our first game. It’s not about me. It’s about the team and what we are trying to accomplish.”
UNT will open the season at Creighton on Nov. 9, when the Mean Green is hoping to show that there are a few more players on its roster who rank among the top players in the Sun Belt.
“I was very surprised that I was the only one on there,” Mitchell said. “It is what it is. When we start playing other teams in our conference, we will show them.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
SBC PRESEASON COACHES POLL
First-place votes in parentheses.
1. North Texas
2. Arkansas State
3. Arkansas-Little Rock
1. Middle Tennessee
2. South Alabama
3. Western Kentucky
4. Florida Atlantic
6. Florida International
PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM
Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell (North Texas, So., F)
Will Neighbour (UALR, Jr., F), Trey Finn (Arkansas State, Sr., G), Marcos Knight (Middle Tennessee, Sr., G), Tony Mitchell (North Texas, So., F), Augustine Rubit (South Alabama, Jr., F)
Brandon Peterson (Arkansas State, Sr., F), Greg Gantt (Florida Atlantic, Sr., G), JT Sulton (Middle Tennessee, Sr., F), Bruce Massey (Middle Tennessee, Sr., G), George Fant (WKU, So., F)
Marcus Hooten (Arkansas State, Sr., G), Raymond Cintron (Middle Tennessee, Sr., G), Javier Carter (South Alabama, Sr., F), Freddie Goldstein (South Alabama, Sr., G), T.J. Price (WKU, So., G)