North Texas has raised the bar
Now that Mean Green know how to reach NCAAs, they have to learn to win there
OKLAHOMA CITY -- After taking a job not many coaches wanted, Johnny Jones vowed to win championships at North Texas.
Nine years later, he has delivered on his bold promise, claiming a pair of Sun Belt championship trophies in the current streak of four consecutive 20-win seasons.
That's a remarkable accomplishment for a program that had won a grand total of 20 games in the four seasons before Jones' arrival in Denton. In the process, he has raised the bar.
UNT proved that punching its ticket to the 2007 NCAA tournament was no fluke. It returned a few years later, meaning the Mean Green have been to the Big Dance more under Jones than under every other coach in school history combined.
It's now time for North Texas to take the next step.
And it's a big step, as evidenced by Kansas State's 82-62 win over UNT in a West Region first-round game Thursday at the Ford Center.
Just like in their last tournament appearance under Jones, the Mean Green were a No. 15 seed that lost by double digits. Unlike in the 2007 loss to Memphis, UNT didn't have a chance to win this game midway through the second half. Big 12 bully Kansas State was simply too big, too fast and too deep for a Sun Belt squad that shot 31 percent from the floor and had its two interior players hit with foul trouble.
But there's no reason to believe the Mean Green can't position themselves to put on a glass slipper in years to come. Exhibit A: Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky won three NCAA tournament games in the previous two seasons.
Athletic director Rick Villarreal and Jones, who recently agreed to a five-year contract extension, preach the importance of continuity for a program that clearly has established itself as the Metroplex's elite.
(Memo to SMU and TCU: If you don't think that's true, agree to a home-and-home series with UNT. More on scheduling in a moment.)
Power forward Eric Tramiel was UNT's only senior scholarship player, meaning the Mean Green's core will return basically intact. Forward Kedrick Hogans and point guard Dominique Johnson will return after injury-induced redshirt seasons, adding experienced depth. Center/power forward Alonzo Edwards, a transfer from Nebraska via junior college, has orally committed to replace Tramiel as George Odufuwa's partner in the paint. UNT hopes to sign a dynamic guard with its remaining scholarship, with doors opening for UNT a lot more often in recruiting lately than they had in previous years.
"When you look at our program nine years ago, we didn't have the players to get through the first round of [the Sun Belt] tournament," Villarreal said. "Now we've made it to the NCAA tournament. That tells the kids 'I can go to North Texas and play at a high level. I can be the piece that takes them the next step.'"
So what else can UNT do to increase its odds of moving on in March Madness? Start with the schedule, a somewhat sensitive subject for Jones.
Let's be blunt: There's no reason to book hotel rooms through the weekend if you're following a 15-seed. There have been only four 15-over-2 upsets in NCAA history. If it doesn't happen this season, there will have been 100 15-seeds that were first-round losers.
The Mean Green must schedule with NCAA seeding in mind. It's all about RPI and strength of schedule for the mid-majors. Here's how the Mean Green ranked in those categories this season: 104 and 272. Western Kentucky, with strength of schedule rankings that were triple digits better, landed at 59 and 41 in the RPI the previous two seasons. That allowed the Hilltoppers to earn 12-seeds, putting them in position for opening weekend success.
"We are now at a point that we've got a veteran team," Villarreal said. "You do have to schedule to test ourselves a little more."
Jones counters that he considers road games against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, which the Mean Green played this season, to be pretty challenging. UNT's schedule next season includes a trip to LSU and a home game against Texas Tech.
"You can't just expect to go out there and play a brutal schedule, raising money," Jones said. "They don't only expect you to play that schedule; they expect you to win that schedule, as well. We need a certain type of balance in our schedule."
He's absolutely right. Making the nonconference schedule a fundraiser almost killed the program under previous coach Vic Trilli. But balance shouldn't mean scheduling a gimme win for every guaranteed paycheck game.
It's time for UNT to think like a mid-major power, which means scheduling to prepare itself for March Madness, from a competitive standpoint and in terms of putting together a résumé that will impress the selection committee.
That means a mix of major conference foes and respectable mid-majors in the nonconference schedule. Call Sam Houston State, the Southland Conference champion that scared Baylor in the first round. Maybe Murray State, which pulled off an upset over Vanderbilt, is another possibility, given that the athletic director there is a former UNT staffer who still has a lot of friends in Denton. How about Houston? UTEP?
Or UNT can keep the current balance in its schedule and accept another 15-seed when it wins the Sun Belt tournament, which is certainly a strong possibility next season.
The UNT program already has far exceeded expectations under Jones. It's just not as good as it can be yet.
Tim MacMahon covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter.