Game #8-537: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at North Texas Mean GreenFebruary 2, 2012 8:00 pm
In the academic field of international relations, a decent amount of scholarship is devoted to the study of dyads. A dyad is any two countries, but in this context, pairings like Guyana-New Zealand aren't usually given too much thought. Historically, the most studied dyads are or were the most newsworthy ones due to hostilities or high levels of trade and cooperation. United States-USSR was undoubtedly the Duke-North Carolina of dyads.
The dyadic nature of team sports makes analogies to bilateral international relations a natural fit. However, the most natural sports comparison to international relations is college basketball due to the power structure and abundance of teams.
After the biggest powers, dyads of composed of contiguous countries or those in the same region are studied the next most often. In college basketball, the games between the traditional Top 25 powers are covered most, followed by the conference games in the power conferences, and then the biggest games below The Line.
A professor whose class I was required to take in my first semester of grad school has published work focusing on how certain dyads originate. In the international relations literature, how a dyad becomes salient hasn't been as important as the diplomatic, economic and military activity that goes on between the two states. Extending the analogy further, last Thursday's North Texas game against Middle Tennessee had me wondering about how dyads emerge in college basketball as rivalries.
To be clear, I don't consider any team in the Sun Belt to be a true rival to UNT. Sure, when Western Kentucky has had solid or great teams come into Denton, it was a big occasion and attendance went up accordingly. But with the East-West nature of the Belt for basketball and the conference having 13 members before New Orleans' move down to Division III, WKU had only come to Denton once since 2007 prior to this season. Other Sun Belt teams like South Alabama have provided an exciting atmosphere on an ad hoc basis. By the end of Bo McCalebb's career at UNO, I loved to beat the Privateers, but only because he was a personal tormentor of UNT.
It seems that some UNT fans do consider Middle Tennessee a rival, though. On the Go Mean Green
message boards, a fairly witty and non-reactionary website as far as the fan boards genre goes, some will transpose the initials of Middle Tennessee State University to "MUTS" or refer to the school as "the MUTS". I don't know why they refer to the Blue Raiders as this. Perhaps they liken people from Tennessee to dogs. It beats me, because I have no real animosity built up towards Middle Tennessee. I can only assume it has to do primarily with football.
It's surprising to some who know I'm a big sports fan that I don't always follow the UNT football team on a weekly basis when that sport is in season. I've tried, but it's hard to follow something with the passion I have for basketball when the reward for a conference championship is a bowl game in Mobile, Alabama that no one outside of the participating schools will remember in a couple years and has no bearing on the sport's championship. Contrast that to basketball, where the Sun Belt champion will always be six or seven wins away from the national title.
In my mind, the one school that is the most natural rival for North Texas is SMU. The schools are less than an hour apart in the same metro area and present a fascinating dichotomy. North Texas is the large, relatively affordable state school, and SMU is the exclusive, expensive private university. The UNT campus has a decidedly more utilitarian feel than the highly manicured, classic red brick look SMU provides. The University of North Texas is adjacent to Denton's older, smaller homes, constructed before the city had massive population growth due to urban sprawl in the 90s and 2000s. Southern Methodist University sits beside Dallas' prestigious Park Cities, home to some of the highest average property values of any two communities in the country. There's a section of SMU fans that regard UNT graduates as uneducated, while some UNT backers view SMU people as privileged and arrogant. When the Black and Blue rivalry between VCU and Richmond was profiled on this site upon both schools making to the Sweet 16 a year ago, I thought, "gee, this sounds awfully familiar."
It's obvious that in order to have a rivalry, you have to play your rival school regularly. It also helps if there's something on the line when the teams play. It's these two conditions where UNT and SMU can't be called a rivalry. The two schools have only played eight times in football, and haven't played in basketball since 2002. They have never been in the same conference together. In fact, there are theories that say SMU has actively tried to keep UNT out of its conference on multiple occasions.
In 1974, athletic director and head football coach Hayden Fry pulled then-North Texas State out of the Missouri Valley Conference (yes, THAT Valley) to become an independent in the hopes of getting an invite to the Southwest Conference, which contained all of Texas' current Big 12 schools: Rice, Houston, TCU, SMU and Arkansas. It's a shame Fry did, because shortly thereafter, the UNT basketball team posted records of 22-4, 21-6 and 22-6 under head coach Bill Blakeley from 1975-78. A team that could have contended in the Valley for three seasons received nary an NIT bid. Some think that SMU blocked UNT from becoming a member of the SWC, although former UNT President Frank Vandiver conceded that UNT "didn't have a snowball's chance in hell" of joining the SWC after Fry took the school Indy. In 2005, when UNT was applying to join Conference USA, SMU some think may have blocked the bid and UTEP was invited.
If UNT ever does join CUSA, as many think it will, it will be after SMU has already departed for the Big East. The only school UNT plays in basketball in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is UT-Arlington, a yearly non-conference game. With no fellow Texas schools in the Sun Belt, the in-state component of the UNT's schedule is made up of road games to Big 12 schools or home games against Southland Conference teams. UNT was in the Southland Conference from 1982-1995 after its football program was placed into Division I-AA by the NCAA shortly following the 1978 Division I split.
Rival or not, Middle Tennessee came into the Super Pit with an unblemished conference record at 8-0, and already led the East Division of the Sun Belt by three games. The game time said 7 pm, but knowing that there was a women's game beforehand, I knew that I could probably shoot for a 7:20 arrival and be fine. However, this wasn't just any women's game, but one against the Middle Tennessee Lady Raiders. Like the men, the women had an unbeaten Sun Belt record coming to Denton. Unlike the men, the Lady Raiders have been the Sun Belt's premier team for the better part of a decade, making seven of the last eight NCAA Tournaments. I had hoped to catch at least the last few minutes of the women's game, but traffic and my gas tank had other plans.
Once I arrived at the parking lot for the Super Pit, the women's game went final: a two-point win for the visitors in a precursor of later events. As I listened to the postgame show for the ladies, I kept searching and searching for an open parking spot that wasn't there until I drove all the way to the backside of the old football stadium. Typically, parking on the west end zone side of the stadium is an indicator of a good crowd. Parking all the way behind Fouts Field was something I've never had to do for basketball.
This had me thinking the impossible. Could the 10,000 seats of the Super Pit actually be sold out? For a Sun Belt game? Not even the DFW alumni-rich Big 12 schools like Texas Tech or Oklahoma State bring enough of their fans or generate enough interest among UNT fans to sell out games. Then, walking past the west end zone, I saw people filing into the Murchison Performing Arts Center which sits across North Texas Blvd. from the Super Pit. An event there would certainly explain the appearance of a gigantic crowd. Once I got in, I knew it would not be a sellout, but the attendance was nonetheless fantastic. I can't remember a better-attended Sun Belt home game than this one. Perhaps my plea
resonated. Usually I am able to grab a seat 10-20 rows up in the student section if I'm finding a place to sit 15 minutes before tip off, which I was. However, last Thursday, I was forced to sit in the upper bowl of the Super Pit on account of every lower bowl student section seat being filled.
The game started with UNT rising to the occasion of playing the best team in the conference, leading 20-11 at the under 12-minute media timeout. The Blue Raiders promptly responded with a 14-0 run and outscored the Mean Green for the rest of the half 25-6. After the hot start, North Texas made just one of its final 11 attempts from the floor. Yet, Middle Tennessee didn't look as invincible as those metrics indicated. UNT missed some great looks, including a few at the rim. Tony Mitchell had failed to heat up, only scoring four in the opening 20 minutes.
However, the second half didn't open much better than the first half had ended for UNT. Middle Tennessee ran a methodical, crisp offense and scored on seemingly every possession in the game's third quadrant. A girl sitting behind me summed up Middle Tennessee's execution well, saying, "They're just better at basketball right now." Only the heroics of Alzee Williams, who finished with a career-high 29 points, kept the Mean Green from being down more than 15 with 11:21 to play.
Over the next five possessions, UNT scored 13 points to MTSU's two to cut the margin from 15 to four in less than 3 minutes. At this point, I saw an empty seat available in the lower section of the student section. Having not gone to the game with anybody, I moved down. There was no way I was possibly riding out a massive comeback against a likely NCAA Tournament team in the somewhat sterile atmosphere of the upper bowl. Mitchell, who had begun to do more offensively in his matchup against MTSU's LaRon Dendy during the run, cut the margin to one with 6:59 to go with two free throws.
North Texas never led, but had a thrilling opportunity to tie with under a minute to play. After inbounding the ball with a little more than 51 seconds to play, Mitchell and Williams were blocked by Dendy. Tyler Hall was able to gather the offensive rebound. UNT held the ball before Brandan Walton had a great look to take the lead with a #superhoop. No good. Mitchell somehow skied for a tip-in attempt with eight seconds to go. It was going in. We would possibly go to overtime after playing poorly for more than 20 minutes against the Sun Belt's best team. The crowd would lose its mind in a split-second.