The program: Since taking over as head coach at North Texas in 2001, Johnny Jones, who played and coached for LSU in the Final Four in the 1980's, has turned the Mean Green into one of the most consistent programs in the Sun Belt. It took him awhile to get his feet under him, but North Texas has had five consecutive 20-win seasons while appearing in the 2007 and 2010 NCAA Tournaments.
The season: A young team with only two upperclassmen (junior F Roger Franklin and G Brandon Walton) in their top 6 in terms of minutes played, the Mean Green have undergone growing pains this season, with a 16-13 overall record and a 9-7 mark in Sun Belt play. They tested themselves in non-conference play, coming up short in their four games against BCS teams (Texas, Texas Tech, Mississippi State and LSU), but they've improved as the year has progressed and their average margin of defeat in their last five losses is only 3 points.
The stakes: It's all or nothing for North Texas. With a middling overall record and no signature wins, they're unlikely to receive a post-season berth unless they run the table over the next week.
The conference: The Sun Belt has traditionally been dominated by Western Kentucky, as the Hilltoppers made the Sweet 16 in 2009 and have produced several NBA players like the Houston Rockets' Courtney Lee. This year, Middle Tennessee is the clear favorite, as they've gone 25-5, including non-conference victories over UCLA and Ole Miss. The other team to keep an eye on is 21-8 Denver, who have the Sun Belt's other signature win, a 70-58 defeat of St. Mary's.
The schedule: North Texas, the No. 5 seed in the tourney, plays UL-Lafayette, the No. 4 seed, on Sunday March 4 at 6:15 PM in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Both regular season games between the two schools came down to the last minute, with UL-Lafayette winning 64-62 at home on Jan. 25 and 57-53 in Denton on Feb. 18. The game Sunday will be streamed online here.
The players to watch: UNT freshman Tony Mitchell, the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, is the conference's one legitimate NBA prospect. An athletic 6'9 220 power forward from Dallas, Mitchell was one of the top 20 players in the class of 2010. He signed with Missouri out of high school but was ruled ineligible, forcing him to sit out a year as he transferred to North Texas.
After an impressive showing as part of Team USA's U-19 team in Lithuania this summer, Mitchell has averaged a double-double as a freshman, putting up 15.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks on 58.1% shooting. He's still an extremely raw player, but he's a dominant interior defender at this level and is comfortable playing with the ball in his hands.
Even in a loaded 2012 Draft, Mitchell would probably sneak into the end of the first round. But if he comes back and continues his upward progression, he could be receiving lottery talk at this time next year.
A slightly bizarre video made encouraging people to "vote for Tony", although what it is they would be voting for is not actually mentioned:
The outcome: When you have the best player in the field, you always have a chance. The Mean Green have hung tough against the top of the Sun Belt: losing 68-66 to No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee and defeating No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock 75-67 in an OT road victory. North Texas will need to improve their late-game execution, but if the ball bounces their way, they have a chance to make significant noise.