The Mean Green men’s basketball team open the 2012-13 season today against East Central University in a home exhibition game that’s a tune up before their first regular season game on the road against Creighton. New head coach Tony Benford takes over after leaving Marquette as the Assistant Head Coach under Buzz Williams to take on his first collegiate head-coaching job. He’s taking over a very talented team led by preseason All-American/Sun Belt Player of The Year Tony Mitchell who averaged 14.7ppg and 10 rebounds per game in the 2011-12 season. Coach Bedford joined the rest of the Sun Belt coaches on a conference call last week and we were there to listen along.
On the upcoming Season:
Coach Benford: I’m extremely excited to be the coach here at the University of North Texas. Our guys have been working hard; we’ve had 11 practices so far they have been giving great effort. We have a great group we have 5 seniors and obviously Tony Mitchell who was picked the preseason player of the year he’s very talented, he’s been very accountably since I’ve taken over here and we are looking forward to the upcoming season.
On the state of the team at this point in the season:
I think the new rules for the NCAA allows us to work our guys in the summer, it was really beneficial for us as a staff coming in to a veteran group we were able to work. Like to give coach Jones (Johnny, left for LSU) a lot of credit he did a great job of getting us some really quality players, obviously he had a lot of success here. We were able to kind of put our staff on early as far as how we want to play, how hard we want to play, what we want to do offensively and defensively and our guys have been accountable. They’ve been getting better every day I like where we are at right now.
On how Tony Mitchell has progressed this offseason:
Yea Tony has, as you guys know Tony obviously didn’t join the team until the second semester and that’s very difficult. I was telling a couple people the other day. Tony and I were talking about it was tough he wasn’t able to practice during the fall and had to come in and step right up into the fire so to speak. He had a great summer with us being able to work with him on a lot of fundamentals just trying to tighten his game up a little bit. He went to a couple Lebron James camps, Amare Stoudemire camp, played against some really good competition and that was really good for him. He is excited he’s been working extremely hard, he’s getting better every day and we are very fortunate to have a player of his caliber to coach.
On the talent on this years team (only having 1 player Preseason All Conference):
When you talk about Chris Jones and Jordan Williams two kids who unfortunately became ineligible at the semester so they didn’t play very many conference games, but they are quality players. Both of those kids I feel like they are high level players I think Chris Jones is very talent, I tell people all the time I just left the Big East and I feel like he could start for any of those teams in the Big East at the point guard position. When I was at Marquette we recruited Jordan Williams, he’s a 6’6’’ wing he’s gotten bigger and stronger and could be our most improved player. And then you look at our seniors, we have 5 quality seniors Algee Williams led the league in minutes last year. You’ve got to respect the votes and I told our guys we are going to go out and compete every day get better every day and let the work speak for itself.
On how new staff/players are working together:
I have a great staff, a few guys on here (Rob Evans, Bart Lundy) that have won 200-300 games in their careers. Our unity, our chemistry is really good right now. I think the guys understand our system, they understand were going to win games with defense rebounding. They understand that’s our philosophy, offensively were going to try and get easy baskets and force it in transition. They are starting to understand how we want to play but more importantly how hard we have to play if we are going to have a chance to win games.
On what its like inheriting so much talent and if it makes the transition easier:
Yea it really helps when you inherit a really good group, a group that’s had some success. They obviously didn’t have the success they wanted last year but everyone talks about how much talent we have but we only had 1 guy on the all conference team so I don’t know how much talent we do have. You look at some teams middle Tennessee I think could be like Murray State this year. With the players they have back and I think they are really talented, they won 25 games last year. I’ve got a good group; I have 5 seniors and 3 really good underclassmen. We have a kid Keith Coleman who I think is a Big East center at 6’10 and 250; he’s a quality player. We added also PJ Hardwick a guard who originally signed with Mississippi State, he’s a really good possession type point guard we were fortunate to get him when we took over the job so we have some pieces. We are coming together, we have a good group and we are excited about it, were excited about we are excited about the challenge. We have a great player in tony Mitchell but like the coaches said we have talent but we don’t have the best talent because we only have one preseason all conference player.
On handling the favorite role in the conference:
I think they embrace it, you look at the west I think Arkansas State is going to be really good, they have a great coach in coach Brady he’s been to a final 4 and they have 3 guys on the all conference team. Coach Steve Shields and Little Rock can be really good in the west this year .I know we are picked to be the favorite in the west, but you’ve got to go out and win that’s the bottom line. Were just going to go try and continue to get better every day.
Talk about the buzz the Sun Belt conference is getting:
Every person I talk to I tell them that this is an underrated league, you got great coaches like coach Davis at Middle Tennessee, anyone who can win 25 games in any league is tremendous. They should have been a tournament team in my opinion I, watched them play and they have a veteran ballclub I think they will finish well in the conference. South Alabama’s coach Aarow is a really great coach I’ve known him since I was a player and coach Aarow does a great job. he’s done a great job at South Alabama and they got Augustine is a kid I looked at a little when I was at Marquette, and he’s turned into a really good player and they have some other pieces some really good guards. Western Kentucky was really good at the end last year it was a great ride. You’ve got a lot of quality coaches, quality teams. Coach Jarvis at FAU who I’ve know a long time I have great respect for him also and also the job coach Brady is doing at Arkansas state coming back and coach Shields as well. It’s a really a great league we’ve got great venues to play in, and it’s a great coaches league. I tell people that all the time I just left a great league in the Big East and the coaches in this league can really coach. We have some quality players in the league so we are looking forward to the conference having a great year and great season.
What does it take for a mid major player to be National player of the year:
I think its possible, with the exposure that these guys get but your team has to have success. We played Murray State when I was at Marquette and Steve (Prohm) did a great job. They have a kid like (Isaiah) Cannon who’s great and there team made a great run and played great. Creighton with (Doug) McDermott, they’ve done a great job in the Missouri Valley Conference with the success that they had last year and the guys they have coming back. We open the season at Creighton so that’s a high level game with two really good individual players in Doug McDermott and Tony Mitchell, so I think it helps when you play against quality competition in non conference. TV exposure and these guys going to camps during the summer and playing against some of the best players around the country from other leagues so that gives them a lot of exposure also. I wouldn’t be surprised at the end of the year to see a mid major player be national player of the year.
On if Tony Mitchell could step in and play anywhere in the country:
Yea, I really do <think so>. I recruited him while I was at Marquette and everyone in the country was down here trying to recruit him and I think Tony has really improved. It was tough on him last year coming in at the semester, he hadn’t even practiced coming right in and playing games right away, that’s tough. That’s one reason his turnovers were so high at the beginning of last year, but I think he’s a kid that could play at Kansas, North Carolina he could play anywhere he’s that talented of a player. I think that showed when he came out as a senior he was a top 15 player in the country, so I give coach Jones a lot of credit they did a great job of hanging in there recruiting Tony and when he wasn’t eligible to go to Missouri they were right there and they did a great job working hard to get him here to North Texas.
Coach Benford and the Mean Green have a lot of talent, including potential NBA lottery pick Tony Mitchell but still have a long way to go. They went 18-14 last season and 9-7 in conference play once Mitchell became eligible. They have a lot of hype this year receiving all 11 first place votes in the Sun Belt pre-season poll. Coach Benford was one of the most sought after assistant coaches in college baseball this offseason and will bring a lot of experience and tenacity to this year’s team. Stick around Mean Green fans because this season could be something very special.