After seasons are over, fans in the Other 24 will single out a point in the season where everything changed. Finding such a moment, event or date is inherently a post-facto phenomenon because it requires knowledge of what happened afterwards. I highly doubt Pav would have broken his whiteboard against Mason last February if he knew his beloved Rams would be playing in Houston weeks later.
Such a line of demarcation for the 2011-12 North Texas season is already known. On the evening of January 17, freshman Mean Green guards Chris Jones and Jordan Williams were ruled academically ineligible. While we don't know the final outcome of the season yet, that event will end up profoundly shaping the second half of UNT's season, for better or worse.
At the time of the announcement, Jones and Williams were the top two North Texas players in minutes played, usage and total points. The two players' ineligibility meant UNT was down to three scholarship guards on the roster. To say the least, the announcement was surprising to UNT fans. Under coach Johnny Jones, the Mean Green have graduated players and had no eligibility issues I can remember. Questions have been and still deserve to be asked of multiple actors involved at various levels of the process, but you've come to the wrong place if you want those issues analyzed.
The news transformed UNT's identity from a team with a marquee NBA-level player, Tony Mitchell, with extremely talented perimeter options, to a team that would have to be carried by Mitchell. The Dallas native did just that in an overtime win against Sun Belt contender Denver on January 21, with a 30 point, 17 rebound game. His subsequent outing against Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday was incomplete, only registering 17 minutes in a foul-plagued trip to the Cajundome. Saturday's contest against Arkansas State would be UNT's third with the new lineup. Given that UNT came into this season replacing nearly all of its minutes from a year ago due to graduating seniors, the last few games have been the new start after the new start.
North Texas seems to have a standardized start time of 7 pm for all conference games, but this game started at noon for regional TV. I cannot remember one time a UNT conference game started at noon in my time as a student, an intuition confirmed by a Basketball State search. As such, the student crowd was late arriving, presumably from sleeping in, recovering from hangovers or both. Due to that tardiness, I was able to sit about five rows up from the floor in the student section.
Before taking my seat, I grabbed one of the poster-sized programs the athletic department makes available to fans at tables near the entrance gates to the Super Pit. When I remember to pick these up, it's mainly to look at the opposing team's roster if I haven't already done so on Basketball State. The list of assistant coaches for Arkansas State is what struck me on this occasion, and in particular the name Richard Williams. Sun Belt fans and those that follow coaching hires know that John Brady, the former LSU coach, is the head man for Arkansas State. Brady went to the Final Four in 2006 with the Tigers. However, I wanted to see if the Richard Williams on the Red Wolves' staff was indeed the Richard Williams that led Mississippi State to the Final Four in 1996. It was, meaning that the team from Jonesboro has two former Final Four coaches on its bench. The Red Wolves aren't having the best of seasons, but their coaching staff must be one of the most decorated ones on this side of the Line.
From the tip, it was apparent that Mitchell would be the game's dominant player. Before the first media timeout he had five points, including a #superhoop (6-8 Mitchell is 58% from three on the year), and two blocks. Furthermore, the officials allowed Mitchell to play somewhat aggressively on defense, both in denying entry passes down low and contesting shots.
The Red Wolves obviously were well aware of Mitchell's ability, and their game plan on defense was focused on him. The absence of Jones and Williams limits the offensive options on the perimeter for UNT, but the available guards stepped up and knocked down open looks when they had them. One of the guards who connected for a #superhoop in the first half was Tyler Hall.
I feel like every team has or should have a Tyler Hall. He's the walk-on that clearly stands out as such, and who, under normal circumstances, has the crowd clapping in approval by merely appearing in the game. Like many walk-ons, Hall was a human victory cigar. Since the middle of the month, Hall has been counted on to play big minutes. His 33 minutes against Denver were far and away his most against a Division I team. I'm trying to think of when I've seen Hall play competitive, non-blowout minutes before today and it's not coming to me.
North Texas generally made the most of its possessions in the first half, but only led by six after allowing some second-chance points for the Red Wolves and some lapses on the perimeter defensively.
The halftime entertainment featured a group of about 50 youngsters from Frisco (a suburb north of Dallas) doing a pretty fun synchronized jump rope routine. Almost immediately, I recognized their powder blue shirts. I had seen them a week prior at UT-Arlington. The crowd was delighted, just as those in attendance at Texas Hall had been. However, about three rows behind me, one guy was getting into it a little too much. When you're watching your school's basketball team, who features one of the nation's Top 50 players (and that might be selling Mitchell way short), the repeated boisterous calls of "WOOOOOOO!!!", "Ay ay ay ay ay ay!!!", and "ARE Y'ALL WATCHING THIS?!" should probably be reserved for a thunderous #OMGDUNX.
UNT controlled the defensive glass much better in the second half, and kept playing at a high level in the other facets of the game. The Mean Green had a double-digit lead by the under 16 timeout, and blew the margin out to 20 at one point before winning by 12.
During the second half, I met Magnus, a student who just moved to Denton, but seemed to know a lot about the team and the Sun Belt. While I recognize that not many students are going to be KenPom-subscribing followers of the game, I'm sometimes disappointed at how little students know about the team when I meet them in the student section. Magnus, on the other hand, was looking forward to Thursday night's game against conference-leading, 20-win Middle Tennessee about as much as I was.
One of Kyle's posts that has stuck with me over the years had to do with his time at Oregon compared to his time at Drexel. At Oregon, the focus was always on what the team didn't have, whereas at Drexel it was on what the team actually had. UNT has Tony Mitchell, and that's an incredible asset, regardless of what players the Mean Green don't have available.
at NORTH TEXAS 76, ARKANSAS STATE 64 01/28/2012
ARKANSAS STATE 9-14 (3-6) -- M. Hooten 1-10 4-6 7; B. Peterson 8-16 0-1 17; M. Kirkland 4-11 3-3 11; R. Dickerson 0-4 4-4 4; A. Sterrenberg 2-4 0-0 5; E. Townsel 2-4 1-2 6; K. Ogbonnaya-Branch 2-6 0-0 6; D. Griswold 3-5 0-0 6; B. Clark 1-1 0-0 2; J. Zuppardo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-61 12-16 64. NORTH TEXAS 13-9 (6-3) -- T. Mitchell 8-11 3-3 21; B. Walton 5-9 6-6 19; A. Williams 3-7 2-2 8; J. Holmen 3-7 2-2 9; R. Franklin 4-11 2-2 10; T. Hall 2-4 0-0 5; K. Hogans 2-2 0-0 4; T. Norris 0-0 0-0 0; A. Edwards 0-1 0-2 0; F. Robinson 0-1 0-0 0; N. Stojiljkovic 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-54 15-17 76.
Three-point goals: ARST 6-16 (A. Sterrenberg 1-2; B. Peterson 1-1; K. Branch 2-5; E. Townsel 1-3; R. Dickerson 0-1; M. Hooten 1-3; D. Griswold 0-1), NTEX 7-13 (N. Stojiljkovic 0-1; J. Holmen 1-2; T. Hall 1-2; T. Mitchell 2-3; B. Walton 3-5); Rebounds: ARST 30 (B. Peterson 11), NTEX 33 (T. Mitchell 15); Assists: ARST 12 (R. Dickerson 5), NTEX 15 (A. Williams 5); Total Fouls -- ARST 15, NTEX 17; Fouled Out: ARST-E. Townsel; NTEX-None.