North Texas sits just off I-35 in Denton, Texas, a location thousands of commuters pass on a daily basis on their way in and out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Yet, the Mean Green are not well known. There are seven teams from the state of Texas headed to this year’s NCAA Tournament, and North Texas ranks ahead of only Sam Houston St. in terms or notoriety. And even it received a higher seed than the No. 15 Mean Green.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t play good basketball down in Denton. Quite the contrary. North Texas, which won the Sun Belt’s west division regular-season championship and the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, is currently on an 11-game winning streak.
Only a handful of teams are hotter heading into the NCAA Tournament. For a closer look at how it has found such success, we brought in Brett Vito, who covers North Texas for the Denton Record-Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, and asked him a few questions.
The 11-game winning streak appears to be fueled by the return of senior forward Eric Tramiel. Is that accurate?
Eric was out for four games with a wrist injury. He fell, and was undercut really badly in a nondescript nonconference game against Texas Southern on Dec. 28. He only played three minutes in that game and he was out after that. He missed the Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and New Orleans games (the Mean Green went 2-2 without him) then came back to play against Troy on Jan. 14.
He missed a big chunk in the middle of the season. He’s been on the way up ever since.
They were good before that. They were solid. After they beat New Orleans they were 10-6 and 3-3. It didn’t help them to lose him. They were picked to win the Sun Belt West Division, then he went out and they kind of muddied around for a while. Once he got back and got healthy they really went on a tear. They lost a close game to Middle Tennessee State and haven’t lost since.
That’s impressive. Where does that winning streak rank nationally?
They were tied with Oakland for seventh longest heading into the conference tournament. The teams in front were Butler, Utah State, New Mexico, UTEP, Jackson State and Wofford. Some of those schools lost, so now they’re top 5.
Tell me about the double-double man, George Odufuwa. He is averaging 11.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, but is he legit?
Yeah, he’s legit. He’s a transfer from Arizona State. He was a Dallas kid that they recruited hard. He went to Arizona State, the coach changed over and he wasn’t playing a lot. He was limited offensively, so he transferred. And that redshirt year was the best thing that ever happened to him. North Texas got a great post coach and he was able to sit there and develop. As far as mid-major forwards go he’s great.
That’s what makes North Texas different from most mid-major and Sun Belt teams. Lots of schools have guards, and so does North Texas. But they’ve got George and they’ve got Eric. George is 6-foot-8, big and strong. Eric is 6-foot-7, big and strong. They’re just so hard for teams to match up against at this level.
Was a 15 seed about what North Texas was expecting?
They were hoping to avoid a 15 or a 16. Western Kentucky is in the same conference, and I think they were a 12 when they went to the Sweet 16 a few years ago. What they really wanted was to go to Oklahoma City, because that’s within driving distance for all their fans.
You see teams often seeded up for favorable locations, perhaps North Texas was seeded down. Do you see the Mean Green faithful traveling well?
They’ll sell out their allotment pretty quick. Being only two hours away, I’m sure they’ll have a good group of fans up there.
What are the home games like? Does North Texas draw big numbers?
It’s not huge attendance-wise, but they did have over 4,000 for a couple games this year. They average for home games right about 3,200 fans a game. Not great, but not bad either.
K-State players were talking about junior guard Josh White Sunday afternoon, because they saw him make a big shot against Troy in the Sun Belt title game. How good is he?
The interesting thing about him is his older brother is Quannas White, who used to play at Oklahoma. He’s just a great player. He’s really short (5-foot-10). He’s not very big at all. He’s a really good shooter. He can get into the paint. He can get his shot off despite being small. He’s a very good overall player. He can shoot it from deep, he can take it to the hole and score.
He’s amazing to watch. There was a play earlier this year where he scored at the end of the half over a 7-foot guy. Real crafty. Just an all-around great guy.
When was the last time North Texas was in the Big Dance?
I remember that. The Mean Green did pretty good for itself, right?
Yeah, they led Memphis for a big chunk of the first half. I think Memphis took its first lead at 23-22. They led Memphis and were really competitive. John Calipari was really complimentary of them afterward.
The interesting thing is the last time they went to the tournament, there’s only one guy left from that batch of players (Collin Mangrum), the core of this year’s team — Josh White, Tristan Thompson and George Odufuwa — were all recruits who came in after that tournament run. So they really took advantage.
How do you see North Texas doing against K-State?
It’s tough to say. They haven’t gotten blown out very often. K-State is obviously a different animal, but they lost 82-68 to Oklahoma State and lost by 10 at Texas A&M. So I think there’s a chance. Plus meeting on a neutral court will help. There’s always the chance things wouldn’t go well for them, but they’re going to be a hard team to just completely blow away.