Tough loss is Mean Green's gain

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- It isn't hyperbole to call this the most heartbreaking loss in North Texas basketball history.

The Mean Green managed to blow a seven-point lead in the final 1:42 of the Sun Belt tournament final and a golden opportunity to go to the Big Dance for the third time in five seasons. The 3-pointer by Arkansas-Little Rock's Solomon Bozeman that decided the 64-63 thriller will be a "SportsCenter" staple for a 24-hour cycle.

However, the Mean Green's many mistakes down the stretch will be replayed in their minds. The three fouls in the final 90 seconds, one of which was ridiculously foolish. The missed free throw by Tristan Thompson with seven seconds on the clock, a harsh way to end his record-setting Sun Belt tourney. The four turnovers in the last 82 seconds, including one to set up the game-winning shot.

Not that this will be any consolation to Thompson and the other teary-eyed seniors, but the only silver lining in the clutch collapse for UNT is that it significantly increases the odds that it will keep coach Johnny Jones.

To put Jones' success in perspective, you have to understand that this is a program that won a total of 20 games in the four seasons prior to his hiring. The Mean Green have gone 172-132 in his 10-year tenure, winning at least 20 games in each of the past five seasons.

"It was a great hire when we made it and all he's done is proven us right over a period of time," UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said in a Summit Arena hallway while UALR celebrated on the court. "I couldn't be happier with the job that he's done changing what North Texas basketball is."

There has been some buzz about Jones as a coaching candidate at more high-profile programs, particularly his alma mater LSU, which UNT routed by 20 points in Baton Rouge this season. A third NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons surely would have bumped Jones up the short lists of a few athletic directors.

With the Mean Green missing out on March Madness, Jones is likely to get lost in the shuffle again.

Not that the North Texas administration is making any assumptions. Jones has four seasons remaining on his contract, but Villarreal indicated that the deal would be renegotiated with Jones receiving a healthy raise, which has recently become a rite of spring in Denton.

"You always worry when you have a guy of his caliber about people coming after him," Villarreal said. "We're looking to keep him for a long time. When you start to build programs and have the kind of success that we have, you expect people to come after him, but we're going to try to make it a great situation for him to stay."

In the wake of a gut-wrenching loss, Jones certainly didn't want to get into in-depth discussions on the subject of job hunting. He shared credit for the program's success with players, assistant coaches and administration, but his primary concern was lavishing praise on a group of seniors that just had such a bitter finish to phenomenal careers.

Thompson, who scored a Sun Belt tournament-record 95 points in four games this week, and point guard Josh White were four-year contributors who set a school record by being a part of 86 wins. Double-double machine George Odufuwa, defensive stopper Shannon Shorter and sixth man Dominique Johnson played major roles in cementing the program as one of the Sun Belt's best.

But the cupboard won't be close to bare at North Texas next season.

The highest-rated recruiting class of Jones' tenure is highlighted by 6-foot-6 swingman Jordan Williams, who has averaged 29.7 points for Dallas Kimball this season and is preparing to play in the Class 4A state tournament. And Williams won't even be the most renowned UNT newcomer. Former Dallas Pinkston forward Tony Mitchell, a top-25 national recruit ruled ineligible at Missouri, is enrolled at UNT and on the path to be cleared to play for the Mean Green in December.

"I'm excited about the University of North Texas and what we're doing here," Jones said. "We've got an incredible recruiting class coming in and a great group of young men that's returning. We have an opportunity to continue to play at a high level."

The odds are that Jones, the Metroplex's best college basketball coach, will be back at UNT. That ought to help Mean Green fans recover after getting their hearts ripped out in the final seconds of the Sun Belt final.

Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com.