The 2006-07 season
The road to the Big Dance had a few twists in it for the Mean Green
By C. Anthony Mosser
Most of the UNT men's basketball players who competed in the NCAA Division I tournament March 16 were toddlers the last time the Mean Green made the trip.
The current players grew up in an age that saw college basketball blossom, thanks in large part to the proliferation of cable outlets like ESPN. They watched while telecasters provided Fantasyland-like commentary about the college game, telling of that magical, mystical, faraway tournament known as the Big Dance.
In its record-setting 2006-07 season, UNT revisited that mystical tourney for the first time since 1987-88.
"We made it to the Big Dance," exclaims junior point guard Ben Bell. "That's what it's all about. That's what I'll remember most about this season."
An unexpected guest in the NCAA tournament after its Sun Belt Conference tournament win over Arkansas State, UNT received a 15th seed and was an 18-point underdog to second-seeded Memphis, which was riding the longest winning streak in the nation at 22 games. The Mean Green led through much of the first half, building as much as a six-point advantage, but Memphis pulled away in the second half to win 73-58.
"We had a chance," says head coach Johnny Jones, who formerly coached at Memphis. "Looking back at it, we would have had to play our best game to beat Memphis. We weren't able to do that."
Still, Jones says it was a great feeling to be there.
"It was very gratifying," he says. "Just to see the smile on [senior guard] Calvin Watson's face and the sense of accomplishment he was feeling — that's something I'll never forget."
UNT didn't get to the tournament without a struggle. The journey actually began in early October when Jones relied on a long-time friend in Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson (both are natives of Louisiana) to help set the tone for the season. Johnson's Mavericks, who had made it to the NBA Finals the previous season, held a training camp on campus.
"Watching them helped a lot, just seeing the things they would do to prepare for the season and knowing how successful they were," says Watson.
At the conclusion of the training camp, Johnson imparted to the UNT players some of the knowledge he's gained over what could best be described as a rags-to-riches career.
"He gave a real spirited talk," Bell says. "He talked a lot about what it means to be an underdog."
Stepping it up
With the season approaching, Jones and his team set their sights on the Sun Belt Conference's West Division title. The Mean Green was tied for second in the division in the coaches' preseason poll.
A convincing 90-72 win at UNC-Charlotte in the second game of the season was Jones' first clue that good things could be in store. However, that was quickly followed by an 83-81 loss at home to UT-Arlington. What was worse, senior swingman Kendrick Davis, who along with Watson formed a solid two-man scoring punch for UNT, sustained a hand injury shortly after the game that would keep him sidelined for eight games. Davis had led UNT in scoring in each of its first three games.
"When something like that happens, your season can go one of two ways," Jones says.
Given the end results, it is obvious that others emerged in Davis' absence. Watson and Michael Sturns increased their scoring while the versatile Rich Young moved into the starting lineup and proved to be North Texas' top defender. His unheralded, all-around play prompted Jones to refer to Young as "our glue guy." Quincy Williams and newcomer Keith Wooden gave UNT inside scoring.
"When K.D. (Davis) went out, we knew we all had to step it up," Watson says. "Everybody had to do a little more."
Keeping it close
Close games were commonplace for the Mean Green. The team, which took a 7-2 record into conference play — including two-point wins against Rice and Tulsa — opened with a 97-93 overtime loss at New Orleans. But in mid-December, the Mean Green traveled to Bowling Green, Ky., a place that had been like Death Valley to past UNT teams, and walked out with an 86-85 conference win over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. UNT kept its conference title hopes alive until a 74-71 loss at home to Arkansas State in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
"We just redirected our focus on the conference tournament, to try to get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament," Jones says.
Although UNT was seeded fifth in the Sun Belt tournament and had only a modest 10-8 conference record, the team wasn't as big an underdog as those numbers might suggest. Six of the eight conference losses were by four points or less.
"There wasn't a doubt in our minds that we could win it," Watson says. "There were a lot of good teams in our conference, but there wasn't any dominant team."
UNT peaked at the right time. Its five-game winning streak leading into the NCAA tournament was its longest of the season. In beating Arkansas State 83-75 in the conference final, UNT got its school-record 23rd win and knocked off a team it had lost to twice during the regular season.
"There was the opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament and we were playing a team that blew us out (84-60) earlier in the season," Jones says. "We were eager to play them again."
Ironically, flu-like symptoms limited Davis' play during the conference tournament, but by then, UNT had hit its stride.
"There's no doubt we got hot late in the season," says athletic director Rick Villarreal. "When that bus got ready to leave for the conference tournament in Lafayette, there was a lot of excitement. It was like it was the start of the season again."
When the bus returned, it was with a conference tournament trophy and a police escort to the Super Pit, where a throng of jubilant fans waited to celebrate UNT's new-found basketball success.