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Men's basketball: Today’s season opener marks Walton’s return

Profile image for By Brett Vito / Staff Writer
By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

If all had gone as Brandan Walton anticipated, he would be nowhere to be found tonight when North Texas opens the season with a game against Northwood at the Super Pit.

The senior guard with the dead-eye 3-point stroke was slated to finish out his career a year ago, when the Mean Green was expected to make a run at the Sun Belt Conference title.

A broken foot put Walton on the shelf after just one game, the latest detour in a career that has unfolded in a way he never anticipated. Walton started out at home in Compton, Calif., and made stops at Casper (Wyo.) College and now UNT, which will look to the second-time senior to help provide the outside shooting it lacked in a disappointing season a year ago.

UNT shot a dismal 28.5 percent from 3-point range in the 2012-13 season while heaving up miss after miss on its way to a 12-20 record.

“It was tough,” Walton said. “The shooters that we had were hurt or couldn’t play. A lot of teams packed it in on us. Outside shooting wasn’t our strength.”

UNT is hoping Walton’s return and the addition of a few key players will help change that and give the Mean Green a chance to bounce back from its first losing season in nine years.

“There is no doubt that we are going to be a better-shooting team,” UNT coach Tony Benford said before running through a laundry list of what he feels like are his capable shooters. “It allows you to spread the floor.”

Walton could be the best of those threats. He shot 36.7 percent from 3-point range in the 2011-12 season, when he hit a game-winning shot from behind the arc against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament.

UNT also has Vertrail Vaughns, who shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range at George Mason before transferring and joining the Mean Green. Marquette transfer T.J. Taylor is coming off a redshirt season but was an all-region selection at Paris Junior College two years ago, and he’s had a reputation as a dead-eye 3-point shooter since his high school career at Denison.

Throw in junior Jordan Williams, who hit 46 3s last year, and UNT has all the makings of a vastly improved shooting team.

Becoming a better-shooting team was one of UNT’s top priorities in the offseason after the Mean Green watched teams pack the lane to try to limit Tony Mitchell and Roger Franklin. Mitchell still averaged 13.0 points per game and was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, but there is little doubt UNT’s coaches and players believe they had to make sure they had a way to loosen up defenses this season.

“We have a bunch of shooters this year with Brandan, Vertrail and myself,” Williams said. “We are going to spread the floor. That will loosen things up.”

Walton is the type of player who can take advantage. He hit 54 3s two years ago, when he hit at least two shots from behind the arc in all but five of UNT’s last 16 games of the year.

UNT expected Walton to build on that total last year, but lost him for the year when he broke his foot one minute into a season-opening loss to Creighton.

The Mean Green had plenty of problems a year ago, some of which were injury-related. Starting point guard Chris Jones and forward Jacob Holmen also missed large chunks of the season due to injury.

“It was tough to see my team struggle last year with all the injuries and being shorthanded,” Walton said. “I had to do something to keep my guys going. I tried to talk to them in the locker room and keep them smiling, keep them going. It was tough to not be able to help on the court, so I tried to help off of it.”

The way Walton handled his year off was no surprise to coaches and teammates who have heard his story of crisscrossing the country while continuing his basketball journey.

Walton was a McDonald’s All-American nominee at King Drew in Los Angeles County before he spent two seasons at Casper, which was something of a cultural and climatic shock for the California native.

“I never thought in a million years that I would end up in Wyoming and then Texas,” Walton said. “I thought that I was going to go from California to another nice tropical area with nice weather. I always said that I was going to stay home, but the first chance I had I got out.”

Walton averaged 14.8 points per game as a sophomore at Casper and signed with UNT, which recruited him largely because of his abilities as a shooter.

Walton’s first season couldn’t have gone much better. He started 17 of UNT’s last 18 games and scored in double figures in 11 of the last 14. The opportunity to build on that campaign vanished in a flash when Walton came down awkwardly in UNT’s season opener.

Walton has made the best of the situation, just as he always has, and is back for UNT’s season opener today.

“It’s great to have Brandan back,” Benford said. “He’s a great leader. It was tough for him last year. We had all those seniors on the team. We were disappointed in the way the season ended. Now Brandan can go out on a winning note.”

No matter what happens, Walton will cherish his time at UNT with teammates like Williams, who described him as a funny guy who always has something to say.

“I wouldn’t trade the journey for the world,” Walton said. “I grew up a lot being away from home and handling different situations”

Walton’s life experience will be valuable for UNT this season, just like his sweet 3-point stroke the Mean Green missed so much last season.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.