SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Charlotte was one team in the Atlantic 10 that was a little tough to project coming into conference play. They had a nice non-conference run, winning the Great Alaska Shootout as part of a nine-game winning streak to open the season. They have opened Atlantic 10 play with two straight wins, the latest a 58-50 win at Rhode Island on Saturday that showed how this team will win some games this season.
Charlotte didn’t play the toughest non-conference schedule around, but they won most of their games and some were against good teams that aren’t NCAA Tournament locks. Their only losses came at Miami and at home to Florida State. While there’s no shame in losing to those two, they also represent missed opportunities for significant wins for their NCAA Tournament resume. They also played just two true road games, although the wins in Alaska, much as none were against powerhouses, have some value as well.
The 49ers have made their mark at the defensive end, as they allow opponents to shoot below 37 percent from the field and force nearly 15 turnovers per game. Only four opponents have shot 40 percent or better from the field, and keeping that going took a little work on Saturday. In particular, it required a big second half, and they got just that as they held Rhode Island below 27 percent from the field after the Rams shot 52.4 percent in the field half.
“We’ve got to hang our hat on that,” said head coach Alan Major. “We’ve been fortunate to have some depth this year, we’ve been able to play eight, nine guys at times.”
That was how they turned the game around, as they trailed throughout the first half. The 49ers shot just 37.3 percent from the field, which is lower than what Rhode Island shot, but they won it largely with extra possessions (a 45-25 rebounding edge that included 15 offensive boards and committing just two more turnovers than Rhode Island).
This is a team without a star, although they’re not lacking in talent or players capable of winning some individual honors down the road. The one who might be the closest to that is freshman Willie Clayton, who posted a double-double of 11 points and 13 rebounds on Saturday, and that came two games after he grabbed 16 rebounds. In fact, Chris Braswell is the leading scorer and might have the best overall numbers, but he isn’t the team’s best player.
Charlotte also likes the depth they have developed, as Major alluded to, and not just in the numbers. The staff feels like a number of players could put up even bigger numbers if the team was coached differently, but the wins might not be there. They feel like the chemistry is a big part of how they have won, with Major talking often about a “community service project” with this team in how they win. It might not be visually pretty, it might not make for the kind of box scores one is used to seeing, but it’s hard to argue with a 14-2 record overall, including 2-0 in early Atlantic 10 play.
“One group picks up the trash and the other group cleans the pool,” said Major. “I think that’s a strength, and as we continue to move forward, I think that can really help us, where you don’t have to rely on one or two guys to carry you for the whole game.”
One thing the 49ers have not had to deal with that young teams often do is an inconsistent starting lineup. Major has used just three lineups thus far, and one of the lineup changes started from an injury to Victor Nickerson after he started the first three games. The staff hasn’t seen any issue with players who have moved out of the lineup, and the team’s winning doesn’t hurt.
As a sign of their depth, none of the 49er starters on Saturday scored in double figures. The only one who did that was DeMario Mayfield, who had 17 points on 5-10 shooting.
You won’t watch Charlotte and think you’re seeing an offensive clinic, although they’re not a bad team at that end of the court at all. There isn’t a shooter who strikes fear in opposing defenses, and they shoot 28 percent from long range. They have more turnovers than assists on the season, and Saturday didn’t change that trend as they had 10 assists with 13 turnovers.
The way Charlotte wins is with defense, balance and taking manageable shots at the offensive end. Despite the jump shooting struggles, the 49ers are shooting over 45 percent from the field. That’s a sign that they get shots they can make. They also get to the free throw line about 24 times a game.
Charlotte will need to get some significant wins in Atlantic 10 play if they are to reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. They will have some chances given the conference’s strength, and it helps that Temple is their only repeat opponent as the Owls have an RPI in the top 30. Butler, VCU and UMass look to be solid RPI opportunities as well. The win over La Salle could look better later on (the Explorers’ RPI is 50 entering the past week), as could the win over Northeastern in Alaska as the Huskies are 4-0 in the CAA.
Charlotte started off 2-0 in the Atlantic 10 last season, but they then lost six of seven en route to a 5-11 record. That’s one more reason Major is turning the page and not thinking about that. This year’s team looks more mature, with sophomores that grew through last season’s struggles and freshmen like Clayton that are helping them win, not just putting up numbers. They also have an identity. The next step is for that to translate into more wins.