Mean Green Ready To Embrace Win-Now Mode
2016-17 Season Starts Nov. 11 Against Sul Ross State
DENTON -- Ten years ago the North Texas men’s basketball program entered the preseason with must-win expectations and delivered its first Sun Belt Conference championship and a 23-11 record.
Fast-forward to 2016-17, North Texas is hoping to use a similar formula of a veteran backcourt that leads to a first-ever Conference USA title.
Head coach Tony Benford enters his fifth season with 54 wins and returns 10 players from a season ago.
“We are excited about the upcoming season,” Benford said. “Our guys have been working extremely hard starting this summer in workouts and conditioning. The depth that we have at every position has been stirring up competition. We feel like we have some really great quality leaders and character guys.”
The Mean Green return 90 percent of its scoring from last season, including three 450-plus scorers in junior Jeremy Combs and seniors Deckie Johnson and J-Mychal Reese. Combs earned second team all-conference honors after leading the team in scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounding (10.5 rebounds per game). Combs set a new career-high with 14 double-doubles and could reach 1,000 total points this season.
“Obviously Jeremy Combs has done a great job for us the last two seasons on-and-off the court,” Benford said. “We know what areas we need to improve and that is on the defensive end. We can score the basketball but if we are going to win games consistently we need to defend.”
The Mean Green were near the bottom in scoring defense and turnovers, negating a lot of solid offensive performances a year ago. North Texas topped the 100-point mark twice and broke 80 on six occasions. On the flip side, the Mean Green allowed 100 points twice and gave up 90-plus point five times.
“I think with the maturity this team gained from last year and the work they put in over the summer has made us a better team,” Benford said. “We have added some key additions in Derail Green, A.J. Lawson, Keith Frazier, Ryan Woolridge and Shane Temara, making this my deepest team since I’ve been here.”
Four of the five newcomers are transfers that add experience to the roster. Green joins the Mean Green from Incarnate Word, Frazier from SMU, Woolridge from San Diego and Temara from Angelina College. Lawson is the only true freshman on the roster after leading Bryan High School in scoring last season.
Frazier became the first ever McDonalds All-American to enroll at North Texas last January. The Dallas native played three seasons at SMU under legendary head coach Larry Brown, and will be eligible to suit up for the Mean Green sometime in December.
“Keith is doing well and he is working hard,” Benford said. “He can really shoot the basketball. It isn’t about his talent, we just have to make sure he is committed to the team. He has been in a winning program and has been well-coached. If he continues to keep working hard every day, he can bring a lot to our team.”
Green used his final year of eligibility to enroll in graduate school at North Texas. He has been on a winning mid-major program after going to the Final Four with Wichita State in 2013. The Houston native provides North Texas with a different type of forward, being able to stretch the defense with his outside shooting.
Benford understands the time to win is now as he enters the last year of his five-year contract.
“I think there is always pressure to win,” added Benford. “Every season is no different as you prepare to play. It isn’t about me but about this team. I am not worried about that because if we continue to get better every day, the outcome will take care of itself.”
The Mean Green definitely put together a schedule to help the cause with 18 of its 30 games at the Super Pit, where Benford’s teams have gone 39-27, including 11-7 last season.
North Texas will face some tough opponents in non-conference: at Texas Tech (Nov. 15), at Big 10 member Rutgers (Nov. 23), home to Sun Belt favorite UT Arlington (Dec. 3) and a road contest at Southland preseason favorite Sam Houston State (Dec. 17). The Mean Green also have arguably the toughest opening stretch to start the conference season with five of the first seven games on the road.
“I think we have great balance this year,” Benford said. “Our talent is where it needs to be and the leadership has been improved. We have multiple options at every position but we have to continue to get better defensively.”
With another year of experience, the guard play should be even better with Reese, Johnson, sophomore Ja’Michael Brown and Woolridge. Reese dished out 118 assists last year but needs to cut down on turnovers after committing 101.
“We have quality guards, and we have to take care of the ball,” Benford said. “We have to make simple plays and at times we over-handle the basketball. When you have turnovers you are in trouble. If we can minimize those then we can get quality shots. We put a lot of emphasis on that.”
In the paint, Combs should continue to be a force, but sophomore center Rickey Brice, Jr., is in great shape after dropping 20 pounds from last season. The Arlington native led the team with 36 blocks and will be counted on to be the rim protector.
“Rickey has really improved from last year,” Benford said. “He is a great shot blocker and those numbers should increase with more playing time for us this season. “Our inside presence with Jeremy, Derail, Shane and Rickey will be much improved.”
Only eight teams in school history have been able to win 20-plus games, and two of those teams won conference championships. The pieces are in place and no excuses will be made with the talented roster the Mean Green will put out on the floor.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to win games,” Benford said. “We understand that and we feel like this group can do that. This is about our players and they are working hard to have a successful season.”