Thoughts on UNT men’s hoops

UNT saw its season come to an end today, when the Mean Green fell to Tulane 66-61 in a second-round game in the Conference USA tournament.

The second season of the Tony Benford era concluded with a 16-16 mark and naturally questions about the direction of the program. That’s the case good or bad in college sports. We went though the same process in football a few weeks ago when it was obvious UNT is headed up under Dan McCarney. The issue with UNT’s men’s basketball program is there are a couple of different ways to look at it.

I asked Rick Villarreal about the program before UNT’s game against Rice. I used one quote on the blog yesterday. Here’s another piece of what Villarreal had to say.

“I feel good about the direction of the program,” Villarreal said. “How I judge things as an athletic director is when I go to practice, when I go to games and when I visit with coaches is by asking, ‘Are we moving forward or are we moving backward?’ There is no doubt we are moving forward.”

Benford also expressed confidence in the future today.

“We made a lot of progress and know what it takes to compete in this league,” Benford said of Conference USA. “Our goal is to win a conference championship and get to the NCAA tournament. We are going to continue to work toward that and recruit towards that. Our program is headed in the right direction.”

There is a lot to like about what UNT did this season. UNT beat Texas A&M and appeared to be making the adjustment to the move up from the Sun Belt to C-USA late this season while winning four straight league games.

Benford pointed to some of the good young players on the team as signs of a positive future. Sophomore Maurice Aniefiok had 12 points today and is a high-major talent. Greg Wesley is another high-caliber player and should be a big addition when he becomes eligible next season after sitting out this year. Jeremy Combs comes in next year, giving UNT two forwards who were top 25 players in Texas in their high school classes.

UNT also brings back several other key pieces, including Jordan Williams, Colin Voss and Chris Jones, to name a few.

The Mean Green also loses a few key players, including Alzee Williams, Vertrail Vaughns and Brandan Walton. Alzee Williams was UNT’s second-leading scorer, while Vaughns and Walton were key rotation guys.

I have a feeling UNT will miss Alzee Wiliams, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that UNT can replace the guys it lost.

And then there is the other side of the coin …

UNT was a team that went five straight seasons with 20 wins and then followed that up with an 18-win year for six straight really good seasons under Johnny Jones, whose name and tenure have quickly become a verboten topic now that he has left for LSU.

The idea was that UNT would continue its rise after changing coaches. That is never easy, especially when one is talking about replacing a guy who led UNT to two NCAA bids, doubling the school’s total when he showed up.

It hasn’t been easy and now UNT must try to improve on a 16-16 season in which it played a host of teams that amounted to guaranteed wins, including Northwood, Nicholls State, Incarnate Word, Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas and Wayland Baptist.

And it has to do it without the three seniors we mentioned.

UNT will bring in JUCO guards Carrington Ward and DeAndre Harris.

Ward is averaging 16.3 points a game, while Harris is sitting out this season due to medical issues.

That means UNT is brining in Ward, Harris, Combs and Wesley.

That’s a pretty good quartet, and I don’t expect them to be the only newcomers who show up next year. Benford said UNT is still out there recruiting. I expect the roster to be turned over to an even greater degree in the off-season. If one looks back on UNT’s recent history, that seems like a pretty safe assumption. There is nothing wrong with that. UNT struggled in the post this season.

Wesley is listed at 6-foot-7. Combs is 6-foot-6. Are they the answer? Or just a part of it?

I would expect UNT to turn over every rock in sight trying to find another option down low.

UNT is going to be doing that while facing another key issue for this team — A huge senior class.

UNT has seven guys who are scheduled to be seniors next fall.

UNT is going to have to reload off 12-20 and 16-16 seasons. That is going to make it a little tougher. UNT has a lot to sell in terms of location and being a public school that is a good fit for a lot of guys who are looking to play Division I basketball.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There is a whole lot of talent in that now senior class that isn’t going to be easy to replace. Jordan Williams is one of the more prolific scorers in UNT history and a former Top 150 talent nationally. Chris Jones is a good college point guard. Colin Voss has turned into a good college player and UNT’s most reliable front court player.

T.J. Taylor is a top 100 talent who has yet to put it all together, but might get to that point next year.

Benford has pointed to the jump in competition level with the move to C-USA, and rightly so. Well, it isn’t going to get any easier in the league next year. UTEP isn’t going away. Louisiana Tech isn’t either. And that’s just for starters.

C-USA is a good basketball league and will continue to be.

UNT’s goal is to be a contender.

Benford and UNT officials believe they are on the right track to get there. What transpires in the next few months, from any changes UNT makes when it comes to its roster, how UNT fares heading into the early signing period and how the Mean Green follows up on a 16-16 finish will go a long way toward determining if that is indeed the case.

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