The North Texas men’s basketball team’s miserable run through its fifth season under Tony Benford continued over the weekend.
UNT was plastered by Louisiana Tech 81-57 for its eighth straight loss. The Mean Green are now alone in last place in the Conference USA standings at 0-7.
Benford is in the final year of his contract. The chances of the former Marquette assistant returning seem minuscule, baring a miracle run through the Conference USA tournament. At this point, UNT isn’t even in position to meet the meager goal of making postseason. Only the top 12 teams in C-USA, a 14-team league make the tournament.
People are upset, understandably so, considering the Mean Green averaged more than 20 wins a year and played in two NCAA tournaments in the six seasons before Benford’s arrival.
UNT fans who have reached out to me have been calling for Benford to be booted, but not at the end of the season. They want him out now.
One look at the circumstances makes it clear that parting ways with Benford before the end of the year doesn’t make sense for the program for a number of reasons.
First off, in case you missed it, Mike Canales isn’t at UNT any longer. He’s at Tennessee.
If your wondering how football and UNT’s former offensive coordinator are relevant, consider the circumstances the two times he took over the Mean Green’s headline program.
Canales was a ball of energy, was trying to build his case to become a head coach and he had the respect of the Mean Green’s players. He was a perfect pick to take over the program on an interim basis and was at least considered for the permanent job twice.
Who the heck would UNT turn to if it parted ways with Benford?
Associate head coach Rob Evans is a legendary coach with a lot of skins on the wall. He was the head coach at Arizona State and Ole Miss. He has 205 wins and six postseason bids. UNT’s players love him.
But he’s also 70. Benford is like a son to Evans because of their family ties and the time they have spent together in coaching.
There is no telling if Evans would be willing to take over UNT’s program for the remainder of the season if Benford were let go. And even if he did, would he have the energy to usher UNT’s players through the process?
UNT’s other assistants are David Anwar and Dan O’Dowd, who joined the staff this season.
Neither seem like a fit for an interim stint.
Bringing in an outsider would be a remote possibility. Finding someone who would be a fit and would come to UNT for a couple of months seems like a stretch.
There is also the challenge of trying to keep the good pieces UNT has in place for a new coach, if the school decides to go in another direction.
Players transferring has been called an epidemic in college basketball. The last thing UNT needs is to lose any of the key players it has now to another school. Jeremy Combs will be a senior next season and hasn’t redshirted. A.J. Lawson was a top 25 player in Texas and has played well as a freshman. He also hasn’t redshirted.
I doubt any of UNT’s players leave the program, but the possibility that other programs could cherry pick the roster is out there.
If UNT elects to let this play out tell the end of the season, it shortens the window for players to think about what they want to do if Benford is let go.
Another factor to keep in mind is that Benford has done a good job of making sure his players go to class and stay out of trouble for the most part. UNT’s players respect Benford. If UNT yanks him in the middle of the season, it will certainly disrupt what has generally been a pretty tightly run ship.
UNT doesn’t have a heck of a lot to sell a new coach on at this point. The fan base has dwindled. A significant number of key players are either seniors this year — J-Mychal Reese, Derail Green — or will be seniors next year, including Combs.
Getting rid of Benford midseason isn’t going to change that and it also pretty much eliminates the possibility of a miracle run in the conference tournament.
There is plenty UNT can do behind the scenes to prepare for a coaching change. School officials can gauge the interest level of potential candidates and talk to their agents.
The Final Four, which doubles as a coaches convention, will be here soon enough.
UNT can be prepared to make a move with its men’s basketball program as soon as the season is over, if that is necessary. That is exactly what happened with the switch from Mike Petersen to Jalie Mitchell in women’s basketball.
There is nearly nothing to be gained my making a move now.
The end of the season will be here soon enough.
If UNT needs to make a move — and every sign is certainly pointing that way — that is the time to go forward.