On this site, we don't like to give a lot of credit to schools above the Red Line, for reasons that have been elaborated upon over the past eight years. However, the position North Texas basketball is currently in was indirectly enabled by the past tutelage of the Mean Green's Thursday-night opponent, LSU.
When Johnny Jones arrived in Baton Rouge as one of coach Dale Brown's recruits in 1980, it marked the beginning of 17 consecutive years Jones would spend with the Tigers as a player and assistant coach. Four years later, Jones had his first head coaching position with UNT.
It's tough to overstate how much North Texas struggled before Jones' arrival. In the 10 seasons prior to 2001-02 (Jones' first at UNT), the Mean Green had just three winning seasons and none better than 15-13. His predecessor, Vic Trilli, had a grand total of 20 wins in four seasons. Jones completed his fifth consecutive 20-win season with UNT last year.
The LSU program has not been the model of consistency it was when Brown and Jones were there, and has thus been very vulnerable to teams from our side of the Line in recent years. The Tigers lost to UNT in Baton Rouge a year ago by 20, and have fallen to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama so far this season. Yet whatever problems LSU had coming into the game Thursday seemed to be solved, as the Tigers came in on a five-game winning streak and a win in their most recent outing against nationally ranked Marquette.
North Texas began the game by looking like the more athletic and crisp of the two teams, and had a 19-12 lead at the under-12 timeout. LSU quickly recovered, as North Texas became sloppy offensively, with an 8-0 run. The Mean Green and Tigers traded baskets and the lead for the remainder of the first 20 minutes. The game was deservedly tied, 35-35, at halftime.
Even though North Texas is considered a bigger team by Sun Belt standards, the size advantage of LSU presented a major challenge for the Mean Green. In the second half, the Tigers' size became an issue for UNT, as LSU seemingly grabbed hold of every loose rebound. The Tigers' advantage on the offensive glass led to a decided gap in second-chance points. Justin Hamilton, LSU's seven-footer, played a crucial role in being able to shoot over any UNT defender when guarded one-on-one.
Nonetheless, with a run in the middle portion of the second half, North Texas was in a position to try to pull the upset, as the score was 54-50 with eight minutes left. LSU had a burst left in them from that point and eventually won by nine, 67-58.
When I parked at about 6:55 for a 7 p.m. tip, I knew the turnout would be excellent. If you ever go to a game and the parking lot facing North Texas Blvd. is full, forcing you to park facing the service road to the Interstate, it's a likely sign that the attendance will be in the 4,000-5,000 range (a historically very, very solid turnout). I had to park facing the Interstate Thursday night.
When announced, the number was better than I expected: 6,838. That number was very comparable to the recent occasions power conference teams have played in Denton (Oklahoma State in 2007-08 and Texas Tech last year), but Thursday was far more impressive than those because the students were out of school. Yet, when I looked around the two-thirds-full arena and saw about 65-75% of the attendees in green, I was both thrilled and annoyed.
On both occasions I mentioned previously where above-the-Red Line came to Denton, that game wound up being the highest attended game of the year. Yes, some of those totals are attributable to the other team's fans, but the majority of each crowd was rooting for UNT. I would like to think that 7,000 could be drawn for Arkansas State on a Saturday with the students back in town, but I'm not that naïve. Thursday night will be the highest attendance for the year at any UNT game. The allure of seeing a team above that Line strikes again.
So, let this be a plea to everyone at the game who made it to see LSU, but wouldn't otherwise against less of a "name school": Please, please come out during Sun Belt play. Those three banners you see above the student section? Those are for conference titles, not beating SEC or Big 12 schools in November or December. The conference season defines the season. That will especially be the case this year, as Tony Mitchell and a group of talented freshmen and newcomers gel in January and February. You're going to want to be there when the team comes together.
Plus, this is an exciting time to follow the Belt. Denver and Middle Tennessee both look like outstanding basketball teams so far, and both will play in Denton in the coming weeks. South Alabama also looks solid. Louisiana-Lafayette pulled an upset of Central Florida earlier in the week, and even a struggling Western Kentucky team gave Louisville a heck of a game Friday night. Florida Atlantic, the preseason conference favorite, is under .500, but has played a tough schedule and returns most of the team that dominated the league during the regular season last year.
Then, if you like the home slate Sun Belt play, head to the conference tournament in Hot Springs. It's a nice town, and if you can afford to take off a couple days from work, watch some basketball and enjoy the area. If you're a student, the university will pay for the bus to get you there. Who knows, you could see something special once again from the Mean Green.
LOUISIANA STATE 67, at NORTH TEXAS 58 12/22/2011
LOUISIANA STATE 9-3 (0-0) -- R. Turner 4-7 0-0 8; C. Bass 3-3 0-1 7; J. Hamilton 7-13 0-1 14; A. Hickey 0-6 0-0 0; S. Warren 6-13 3-3 15; J. O'Bryant III 4-10 3-4 11; J. Isaac 0-3 0-0 0; M. White 5-6 2-3 12; E. Ludwig 0-1 0-0 0; J. Courtney 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 29-66 8-12 67. NORTH TEXAS 6-6 (0-0) -- C. Jones 5-10 5-7 15; A. Williams 3-6 2-2 8; J. Williams 1-6 3-4 5; T. Mitchell 4-9 3-5 11; K. Hogans 0-1 2-2 2; R. Franklin 2-2 0-0 4; B. Walton 2-6 3-4 9; J. Holmen 1-3 2-2 4; A. Edwards 0-0 0-0 0; T. Norris 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-44 20-26 58.
Three-point goals: LSU 1-11 (C. Bass 1-1; J. Hamilton 0-1; E. Ludwig 0-1; J. Courtney 0-2; R. Turner 0-1; A. Hickey 0-4; J. Isaac 0-1), NTEX 2-15 (J. Holmen 0-1; C. Jones 0-2; T. Mitchell 0-2; B. Walton 2-6; J. Williams 0-4); Rebounds: LSU 39 (J. O'Bryant III 10), NTEX 28 (K. Hogans 6); Assists: LSU 5 (J. Isaac 2), NTEX 6 (C. Jones 3); Total Fouls -- LSU 21, NTEX 16; Fouled Out: LSU-None; NTEX-None.