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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tigers Face Former Coach

Tigers face former coach
North Texas' Jones led U of M as interim

By Jim Masilak
March 12, 2007

As the brackets for the NCAA Tournament were unveiled Sunday, a certain sense of inevitability began to set in on the North Texas coaching staff.

One by one, the teams in the field of 65 were revealed on CBS. Each time one of those teams wasn't North Texas or Memphis, the suspicions of Mean Green coach Johnny Jones and assistant coach Charlie Leonard inched closer to confirmation.

"By the time it finally got up there, you guessed who it was going to be," Leonard said. "It was like, 'Well, there's nobody left. It's got to be us and Memphis.'"
When at last the No. 2-seeded Tigers (30-3) were paired with the 15th-seeded Mean Green (23-10) in an 11:30 a.m. first-round South Regional matchup Friday in New Orleans, Jones and Leonard had already started preparing for what should be an interesting week.

It was on the eve of the 1999-2000 season, in the wake of a scandal that cost Memphis coach Tic Price his job, that the then 38-year-old Jones was hurriedly installed as the Tigers' interim coach.

Leonard, who had previously spent seven years as the head coach and athletic director at Christian Brothers University, was quickly brought in as an assistant as the Tigers readied for a trip to the Maui Invitational.

Jones led the Tigers to a 15-16 record in his only season in charge. He was not retained by the UofM, which hired John Calipari as its coach two days after the season ended.

After a year as an assistant at Alabama, Jones was hired at North Texas. He brought Leonard on board as an assistant and, in his sixth season at the Denton, Texas school, has led the Mean Green to just the second NCAA Tournament appearance in the program's history, and its first in 19 years.

The possibility that Memphis might be North Texas' first-round opponent first occurred to Jones a few days ago.

"The basketball gods put it together," said Jones, who recalls his time with the Tigers fondly despite the difficult circumstances.

"Being at Memphis, where I had my first opportunity to be a head coach and get some unbelievable experience -- I have great memories of the things that transpired," he added. "When I saw Memphis up there I said, 'We'd better get back to work and get ready for a very good basketball team."

North Texas finished third in the Sun Belt Conference's West Division with a 10-8 record, but the Mean Green earned a spot in the field of 65 by winning four games in seven days at the conference tournament.

Led by senior guards Kendrick Davis and Calvin Watson, North Texas defeated Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State in succession to win the Sun Belt's automatic NCAA berth.

"We're extremely excited getting back to the NCAA Tournament," Jones said. "To take a group of young men at a place where the tradition hadn't been there over the years ... for them to have the opportunity to play there because of their hard work, that's a good thing for me because I want to take them and have that experience."

The 6-5 Watson leads the Mean Green with 15.8 points per game, but the key player might be the 6-4 Davis, an Arkansas transfer who averages 13.2 points per contest.

Davis missed nine games earlier this season after severely cutting his left (shooting) hand. The injury occurred when Davis accidentally put his hand through a glass door he was trying to open at the team's arena.

"But they fixed him up pretty good," said Leonard, adding that Davis was fortunate to not sever any tendons.

While North Texas lost games to the likes of Texas-Arlington and Florida International, it is 2-0 against Conference USA foes this season, having beaten Rice and Tulsa in November.

"Johnny has done a great job at North Texas, just a terrific job," Calipari said. "They've got good players, they shoot the ball well and we'll have to perform."

North Texas, which goes eight deep, averages 77.5 points per game and shoots 45.9 percent from the field -- though only 65.5 percent from the free-throw line -- doesn't plan to slow it down vs. the Tigers.

"Coach Jones is about making it a good game for the kids to play," said Leonard, jokingly adding that he and Jones know a better way to mess up the Tigers.

"We'll get (travel coordinator) Lou (Strasberg) to mess up the travel arrangements and (basketball office coordinator) Lunetha (Pryor) to send them to the wrong city," Leonard said, "and we'll go from there."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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