There are a host of signs that North Texas is headed the right direction in Grant McCasland's debut season as coach.
UNT will have a chance to build on one of the biggest Saturday when the Mean Green travel to Rice for a Conference USA game. UNT looked like a fish out of water away from the Super Pit before McCasland showed up and guided the Mean Green on a road revival this season.
UNT (9-8, 2-2 C-USA) has a 3-5 road record this year. That might not sound all that impressive, but it represents a huge turnaround for the Mean Green, who were 2-23 in road games in the two seasons before McCasland's arrival.
UNT opened C-USA play by beating UTEP and Texas-San Antonio on the road and also won at San Diego.
"You have to be great defensively on the road," McCasland said. "You have to get stops and finish with rebounds. You also have to hit free throws."
UNT has done just that and will look for its third road win in C-USA play at 2 p.m. at Tudor Fieldhouse in Houston.
The Mean Green women also will be in action Saturday when they take on Charlotte in the finale of a three-game homestand at 3 p.m.
The Mean Green women (10-5, 1-2) snapped a two-game losing streak when they knocked off Old Dominion for their first win in C-USA play Thursday night and will look to even their conference record against Charlotte (6-10, 2-1).
The UNT women came up with one of their best offensive performances of the season in their win over the Monarchs, nailing 10 shots from 3-point range. Junior guard Terriell Bradley hit four shots from deep on her way to a game-high 23 points.
Bradley enters Saturday's game leading UNT with an average of 17.3 points.
Charlotte beat Southern Mississippi and Old Dominion in its first two C-USA games before falling at UTEP. Junior guard Laia Raventos is averaging 14.9 points to lead the 49ers.
The UNT men were swept by Rice last season but will face a dramatically different Owls team. Scott Pera, who spent the last three years as the Owls' associate head coach, took over the program in the offseason after Mike Rhoades left to take over at Virginia Commonwealth.
Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov, Marquez Letcher-Ellis and Marcus Jackson all transferred a short time later, leaving Rice without three of its top players.
Rice (4-13, 1-3) has struggled to recover and lost six straight before breaking through to beat Charlotte in its last game. Junior guard Connor Cashaw leads the Owls with an average of 15.9 points.
UNT's players have vowed to not take Rice lightly despite the mass exodus of star players and the Owls' struggles this season.
"We are never going to underestimate our opponents," said UNT guard Roosevelt Smart, who is averaging 18.0 points to lead the Mean Green. "They played well against Old Dominion and went to overtime."
UNT enters its game against the Owls off a disappointing homestand that saw the Mean Green drop back-to-back games to Charlotte and Old Dominion by a combined five points. UNT's 63-60 loss to the Monarchs last Saturday was particularly tough for the Mean Green, who went just 17-for-29 from the free throw line.
"We missed a huge opportunity at home in front of an awesome home crowd," McCasland said. "The crowd helped us. We just didn't play well enough to win. We didn't play well enough offensively. We had some pretty good looks but needed to be a little tighter and have fewer mistakes."
UNT has emphasized free throw shooting in practice this week and is hoping to rebound on the road, where it has played better this season than it has in years.
"We are most definitely better on the road this year," UNT guard A.J. Lawson said. "We have to have a great mindset."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas coach Grant McCasland talks to the media during a press conference after the Mean Green fell to Old Dominion at the Super Pit on Jan. 6. (Jeff Woo/DRC)