North Texas coach Tony Benford and his players know the memories of a disappointing season won’t be easy to bury.
The expectations were too high for a team with a future NBA draft pick in Tony Mitchell and a host of talented players around him to forget — at least until the Mean Green has a chance to prove that performance was an aberration for a program that has been highly successful for nearly a decade.
The first step in that process came Friday when UNT opened practice for the 2013-14 season just months after the close of a 12-20 campaign — its first losing season since 2003-04.
“We are excited,” Benford said. “We have a great group of guys with character. We are all disappointed in last year. I’m accountable and take responsibility. It’s on me. [UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal] hired me to take this program to another level. We have some pieces in place to change the record we had last year.”
UNT returns its leading scorer in Jordan Williams, who averaged 14.2 points per game, and Alzee Williams, who averaged 11.1 points. Chris Jones, who saw his season reduced to 16 games by a broken foot, and Brandan Walton, who played just one game before being lost for the season with a broken foot, are both back at full strength.
UNT is expecting the return of the key backcourt players it lost to injury and a few additions, including guard Vertrail Vaughns and center Kelvin Gaines, to make a huge difference.
“We have been waiting on this for a long time,” Jones said. “We have to redeem ourselves as individuals. The look that we had last year wasn’t us. We have to play harder and be more determined to get to where we want to be.”
UNT believes the return of Jones and Walton will help address some of its key weaknesses last season, when the Mean Green finished last in the Sun Belt Conference in 3-point shooting (28.5 percent) and 11th out of 12 teams in 3-point defense (36.0 percent) and assists (10.2 per game).
Benford also says the addition of assistant coach Scott Monarch, whom he worked with at Marquette, will help the Mean Green address its weaknesses and refine the up-tempo style he wants to implement. UNT struggled last season offensively while averaging 66.2 points per game, down from the 70.3 points the Mean Green averaged two years ago.
“We are going to be real up-tempo,” Benford said. “Coach Monarch is another great recruit. He has been working on us with our transition game. We are going to push the basketball. That is the way I want to play.”
Benford and his players say they feel good about the effort and intensity they have shown during the offseason. They credited the addition of Gaines, a redshirt junior who transferred from Cincinnati, and Vaughns, a senior who transferred from George Mason, with giving the Mean Green a mature presence.
Benford said that Gaines is just one of several players UNT will look to while trying to fill the void left by Mitchell, who was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons.
The presence of Mitchell was one of the reasons expectations were so high in Benford’s debut season. UNT failed to reach those expectations and is ready to move on from that disappointing year as practice begins.
“It’s nice to start over fresh,” Walton said. “Last season was very disappointing. We had a lot of injuries. We don’t want to make that an excuse, but this year we have a good group of guys and a lot of new faces. The coaches did a great job of recruiting. Everyone is way more competitive.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.