Men Fighting For Vindication In Hot Springs
The North Texas men's basketball team has struggled through a disappointing regular season but looks to capture their primary goal - a league championship - this week at the Sun Belt Tournament.
If you're wondering how the North Texas men's basketball is taking this disappointing regular season, you don't have to look hard to find the answer.
It's not on display in practice or shoot-around or games. But talk to the players and you'll find the pain, in their eyes and their voices and their body language. This season is not what this team worked for, prepared for, or played for. It's certainly not what they expected, and the reality of it has been hard to grasp.
"I've never been on a team that lost like this," sophomore guard Jordan Williams said. "Last year we won a lot of games."
He pauses, turns away and takes a half step back. "It's hard on everyone. After some games a lot of people have been crying because we wanted to win so bad. It's been complicated. Everyone thought we were going to be this and be that. It's really, really hard. We thought it was going to click and it hasn't turned out the way we wanted it to be."
"I want them to take it hard," first-year North Texas head coach Tony Benford said. "Losing is hard. We're never going to be satisfied with losing. Our goal is always to win a conference championship and get to the NCAA Tournament. That's always going to be the goal. We've had guys in there crying because they're giving great effort and coming up short. I take it hard, too."
Expectations were so very high coming into the season, maybe higher than they've ever been for any North Texas team. Setting a program record for most wins in a season seemed a reachable goal. Maybe a top-25 national ranking. A Sun Belt West Division title and league championship. And - most importantly - going to and making a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Reality has been so painfully different. Instead of rolling into this week's Sun Belt Tournament in Hot Springs as one of the top seeds with a gaudy record, the Mean Green is 12-19 overall, 7-13 in Sun Belt play, seeded 9th and facing a first-round game Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette. The anticipated level of performance did not materialize through the first 25 games of the year, and a roster deep in athleticism and talent has been decimated by injuries, sidelining four starters and forcing the rest of the team into dramatically extended minutes.
"I don't think expectations were too high," Williams said. "We just didn't execute. I don't think the hype was too big."
Roger Franklin, one of the team's few senior leaders to avoid injury, agrees, but he also points out that the most-prized of all the Mean Green's goals remains in reach. Win four games this weekend and North Texas will be Sun Belt champions and headed to the NCAA Tournament.
"Everybody has counted us out, but I think we can really show what Mean Green pride looks like by fighting back and winning the Sun Belt championship," he said. "This team has a great opportunity. We've stuck together and we're still getting better, so now I feel like we can make a deep run into the tournament and possibly get into the NCAA Tournament."
"That's the attitude right now," Williams said.
Benford certainly hasn't given up.
"I told the guys, your character is built through the adversity you go through," Benford said. "These guys have shown a lot of mental toughness."
The team's attitude is, perhaps, what is most telling about this team. Instead of joining the litany of teams that failed to reach their goals and fell into locker-room dissent or just plain surrendered, this team has held together, rallied around one another and its coach, and chose to fight back.
"The chemistry has gotten so much better because we've had to lean on each other so much," Franklin said.
And while talking about winning the title after so much disappointment may sound like whistling through the graveyard, the Mean Green has shown signs of being the team that was expected to be so dominant this year.
North Texas has played its best basketball in the last two weeks of the season, and there is a feeling within the team that they are finally picking up the nuances of Benford's system, the implementation of which has been slowed by the injuries.
"Because of injuries, we've had to integrate a lot of guys in the rotation throughout the year, and that's made it tough to develop chemistry," Benford said. "But here lately, the last few games, the guys understand what their roles are and we're starting to play a lot better."
The Mean Green bounced back from a five-game losing streak to put up a school-record 75-percent shooting performance in a victory over Florida International, then shot 70 percent to rally for a win at Troy. They won four of their final six games and three of their last four, their best streak of the season that included a dominant win over West Division champ Arkansas State to close the regular season.
"We are finally understanding what we need to do to win and how to win," Franklin said. "Now that we're understanding the system, we have a great opportunity to capitalize on that and maybe come home with a ring."
The team also got one of its fallen starters, guard Chris Jones, back in time for the tournament.
"It's been up and down, but through it all our team has been strong," Williams said. "We've fought through everything. We're going to fight and make a big run through the conference."