Mean Green faces tough five-day test to garner NCAA berth
Tony Benford knows a thing or two about what it takes to shock the college basketball world when everything is on the line in conference tournaments.
Long before Benford became North Texas’ head coach, he was a star player at Texas Tech and helped lead the Red Raiders to the 1986 Southwest Conference tournament title when few thought they had much of a shot as the fifth seed.
Benford was the tournament MVP that year after leading Texas Tech to a win over Texas A&M in the title game.
Benford will look to pull off another stunner this week, this time by leading UNT to the Conference USA tournament title.
UNT (15-15) enters the 15-team event as the No. 10 seed and will face No. 15 Rice (7-22) in a first-round game at 4:30 p.m. today at the Haskins Center in El Paso.
The Mean Green will have to win five games in five days to earn an NCAA tournament berth and extend its season.
“We have enough depth to make a run,” Benford said. “I have been a part of teams as a coach and as a player that made runs in conference tournaments. When I was at Texas Tech my senior year  we finished fifth, won the tournament and went to the NCAAs. It’s doable. We have to worry about one at a time starting with Rice.”
UNT lost to Rice 75-70 in their only meeting this year, when the Mean Green struggled to contain Sean Obi. The freshman forward led the Owls with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Obi and senior guard Austin Ramljak are both averaging 11.4 points to lead Rice. The Owls spread shooters around Obi, their anchor in the middle.
“The big guy is really good,” UNT guard Alzee Williams said. “We can’t let him get good position and have help down on him when he gets the ball.”
UNT will also need solid performances out of its post players, who have been inconsistent throughout the season. Colin Voss has been UNT’s most reliable forward and enters the conference tournament averaging 6.9 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.
Voss finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds in UNT’s loss to Rice earlier this year, but has scored just 12 points in UNT’s last three games combined.
Guards Jordan Williams and Alzee Williams are posting 12.3 and 11.5 points a game, respectively, to pace UNT. Jordan Williams is also UNT’s leading rebounder at 6.2 per game.
“I am pleased with the way my guards are playing,” Benford said. “I need my big guys to rebound and defend, especially if they are not scoring. We need to get Colin scoring again. I keep telling him to shoot the ball. He is one of our better shooters. When he is scoring, it takes the pressure off our perimeter guys.”
UNT believes that if Voss can contribute, it can get back to the form it showed at times earlier this season.
The Mean Green toppled East Carolina, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Texas-San Antonio in its four-game conference winning streak. UNT has played well at times outside of that run as well, including a 61-41 rout of Texas A&M.
“This is a chance to put our struggles behind us,” Alzee Williams said. “Everyone is 0-0.”
Williams was on UNT’s roster and redshirted with an injury in the 2010-11 season, when the Mean Green recovered from a stretch late in the year that saw it lose six of seven before winning three straight in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. UNT fell to Arkansas-Little Rock on a buzzer-beating 3 in the conference finals that year.
Williams said that experience is one he can draw from this week, just like Benford can draw from his run at Texas Tech as a player.
UNT’s entire roster will look to the highs of its season, including its four-game winning streak in C-USA play.
“We are still confident,” Jordan Williams said. “We had a four-game winning streak not that long ago. Everyone brought something in those games. We have to get back to that.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.