Tony Mitchell (AP)
North Texas features potential lottery pick Tony Mitchell and a promising supporting cast. Alabama-Huntsville features a roster overlooked by Division I coaches and well off the radar of pro scouts.
Surely, Monday night's matchup in the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-Off quickly turned into a Mean Green rout, right? Well, not quite.
In perhaps the most surprising loss of the opening week of the college basketball season, a highly touted North Texas team lost to Division II Alabama-Huntsville 78-75, robbing the Mean Green of the chance to face Kansas State with a trip to New York at stake. North Texas now falls to 0-2, its other loss a 71-51 shellacking at No. 16 Creighton on Friday in a matchup hyped as a duel between Mitchell and Bluejays star Doug McDermott.
Perhaps expectations were too high for a North Texas team still unsure of its identity and still adjusting to new coach Tony Benford's system, but there was plenty of reason to be bullish about the Mean Green entering the season.
The 6-foot-8 Mitchell, a versatile defender and rebounding machine, opted to return to school as a sophomore in hopes of progressing from fringe first-round pick last spring to lottery pick next June. He's the centerpiece of a talent-landen roster that also includes promising sophomore point guard Chris Jones, high-scoring perimeter shooter Jordan Williams and former Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin Jr.
What has led to North Texas' early flop? Well, inefficient offense has been the biggest culprit.
Since the staff and system are new and the lineup is different with Jones and Williams returning after missing long stretches last season, continuity remains a major work in progress. Not only did the Mean Green shoot 31.9 percent from the floor against a Creighton team that ranked in the bottom third nationally in most defensive categories last season, they also managed just 35.3 percent shooting against Division II Alabama Huntsville.
Jones went scoreless in the opener and shot just 3 of 15 from the floor on Monday night. Fellow guard Alzee Williams is 4 of 20 combined in the two games. And while Mitchell performed well at Creighton, he somehow attempted just four shots in 31 minutes Monday night, astonishing for a player of his pedigree.
To be fair to North Texas, Alabama-Huntsville isn't just any Division II team. The Chargers have won two straight NCAA South Regional championships and are the first Division II team ever selected to participate in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
When Jones missed the potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night, it prompted wildly different reactions from both sides. Alabama-Huntsville players celebrated being one stunning upset away from a semifinal berth at Madison Square Garden. And North Texas lamented becoming the nation's biggest early disappointment.
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