The Mean Green's unexpected trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament
this spring didn't happen overnight. It was six years in the making.
The team celebrates its Sun Belt Conference tournament win.
(Photo by Ben Rikard)
Ardent supporters say it began when athletic director Rick
Villarreal hired Johnny Jones as head coach in April 2001. The
Mean Green's 15-14 record in Jones' inaugural year was the program's
first winning season since 1995-96.
"There were a lot of doubters who said you couldn't win
here," recalls Villarreal, who had worked with Jones at Louisiana
State University and knew he had played on and coached teams
that advanced to the Final Four. "I just felt that Johnny brought
the right kind of traits to the table."
Jones left an assistant coaching job at the University of
Alabama to come to UNT, where the Mean Green hadn't been
to the NCAA tournament since 1988. But he says he could see
the potential. This was an opportunity to create a winning tradition
where none had existed before.
We are family
It hasn't been easy. For starters, Jones had to convince talented
youth to play for UNT. Then he began building a system that
nurtures the individual player while stressing the importance of
teamwork. The model he uses has served him well: Family.
"That's exactly what they are," Jones says of the players. "That
connection is forever."
As responsible family members, they're accountable to each
other and the team. On and off the court, the coach reminds them, they've got an image to uphold.
Players say they give everything they've
got on the court because they don't want
to let anybody down — not their teammates,
not their school and certainly not
their coach, a man they respect and trust.
"I talk to a lot of my friends around the
country," says guard Calvin Watson. "They can't go to their head coach and
talk about personal problems.
"Coach Jones is different. You can talk
to him about anything.… He's been like
my father because I didn't have one growing
During practice, Jones encourages
those who need a boost and corrects
those in need of guidance. Insiders say
he's benched players who have not taken
care of themselves or their academic
business the way they should.
"Our biggest thrill is not just being able
to win championships," says Jones, "but
to watch our young men walk across the
stage with their diploma in their hand."'
But before they graduate, when they
come together as a team and that gels —
as it did this past season when they won a
school-record 23 games, the Sun Belt
Conference tournament and the automatic
bid to the NCAA tournament —
there is unabashed joy.
"It was a special team," says forward
Quincy Williams. "Everybody believed in
each other and wanted to accomplish one
It helped that the players included
defensive stopper Rich Young. The former
Marine and Iraq war veteran gave his
teammates perspective: At crunch time,
playing basketball is nothing like being
on the battlefield.
When a hand injury early in the season
sidelined Kendrick Davis, one of the leading
scorers, others filled the void.
"We were so determined to win,"
Watson says. "When K.D. got back, we
were just that much better."
When Davis couldn't play at the conference
tournament, detractors expected
the team to fold as it might have in the
past, but it didn't. The Mean Green beat
Arkansas State 83-75 in the final and
earned the trip to the Big Dance.
"It was our dream to make it to the
NCAA tournament," says point guard
Ben Bell, whose emergence was a key to
the strong season."It was more than what
I thought it would be."
UNT gave nationally ranked Memphis
a first-half scare in New Orleans before
To be continued
While making it to the tournament was
a fitting send-off for seniors like Watson,
Davis and Young, the windfall continues
for UNT's basketball program.
Jones, who was named the Greater
Denton Sports Commission's North
Texas Coach of the Year, was rewarded
with a five-year contract extension by the
board of regents.
He has also parlayed the success into a
solid recruiting class, including junior
college guards Adam McCoy and Ryan
McCoy (no relation); former Angleton
standout Tristan Thompson, a 6-5 guard;
and Josh White, an all-state point guard
from Baton Rouge. UNT has also signed
former Dallas Kimball standout George
Odufuwa, a 6-8 power forward who will
sit out the upcoming season after transferring
from Arizona State.
"We've shown we can get to the NCAA
tournament," Jones says. "Now we want
to get back there."
Players like Bell feel the same way.
"We let people know we can play some
basketball here in Denton," Bell says. "Now, we want to protect our championship,
and we're going to work twice as
hard to do it."