As hard to believe as it is, March Madness is right around the corner. Soon we will all be filling out brackets and aimlessly predicting which teams will advance in the NCAA Tournament and how far they will go. The question is, will Charlotte be included in those brackets?
The easy answer is, well, possibly. The last time a 49ers team went dancing was the 2004-05 season when they finished 21-8 (12-4 A-10). This season’s squad is currently sitting at 16-4 (4-2 A-10). At this time in 2004, Charlotte was 14-4 (5-2 A-10).
I didn’t have the pleasure of watching the 2004-05 team, so I can’t adequately compare them to this year’s squad. However, I have had the opportunity to observe this team and witness their development throughout the season. There are things Charlotte is good at and things they are bad at. Some players have overachieved and some have not met expectations.
Let’s start with Charlotte’s strengths, and they’re easy to spot. Defense and rebounding are two of the most over-looked yet critical numbers on the stat sheet of a basketball game. Charlotte fortunately excels in both categories.
Freshmen forwards Darion Clark and Willie Clayton have been a big reason the 49ers are out-rebounding opponents by 3.2 a game. Both players are big, strong and physical and do a great job positioning themselves under the basket when shots go up.
Clayton leads the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game. He has recorded an impressive 71 offensive rebounds which is almost half of his total. Clayton’s efforts on the offensive glass have helped Charlotte beat most opponents in second chance points.
Defense is the other strength of Charlotte, and it is more of a concerted effort. The 49ers play outstanding team defense. They are great at rotating to help out on double teams and typically defend the pick and roll to perfection. A lot of this has to do with the team’s overall quickness, athleticism and toughness.
One of the first things I noticed about this team is how they pass the eye test. The squad is loaded with tall, athletic players that also come equipped with the quick feet that are vital to playing effective defense. The 49ers are holding opponents to a .378 shooting percentage this season and give teams a lot of trouble on the perimeter.
Specifically, Pierria Henry is a joy to watch on the defensive end of the floor. Without too much contact, he is always in the face of his man, bothering him and swatting at the ball. It must be working because Henry leads the team in steals with 54.
Defense and rebounding has saved Charlotte in a few games this season. It makes up for shooting and turnovers, the team’s weaknesses.
Overall field goal percentage has not been bad (.446). However, Charlotte is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. As a team, the 49ers only make about 26 percent of the threes they shoot. This may have a lot to do with Charlotte’s lack of three-point shooters on the roster.
Freshman guard Denzel Ingram seems to be the purest shooter on the team. Ingram trails only E. Victor Nickerson and Ivan Benkovic in three-point shooting percentage, but has shot twice as many threes as both of his teammates.
Terrance Williams is a talented scorer, but has only seen two of his 29 three-point attempts connect. Pierria Henry is a great ball handler, passer and leader at the point guard position, but has only made six of his 31 threes.
Free throw shooting has been another Achilles heel for Charlotte this season. As a team, Charlotte only makes about 65 percent of their free throws while opponents are connecting on just over 70 percent.
Clark and Clayton’s superior athletic ability and physicality may come back to bite them when they get fouled in the process. Both players have struggled from the line all season. Clark is shooting just under 40 percent and Clayton is shooting just over 51 percent from the charity stripe.
Both of these players are freshmen and free throw shooting is a practice-makes-perfect aspect of the game, so I expect their numbers to improve over the next few years. Fortunately for Charlotte, senior Chris Braswell has been a solid free throw shooter. He has gotten to the line 77 times this season and makes about 73 percent of his foul shots.
Transfer graduate student JT Thompson leads the team in FT percentage. He has made 18 of his 19 attempts (.947).
Charlotte’s turnover problem is difficult to put a finger on. There’s no one player that seems to have the “turnover bug” all of the time. Pierria Henry has the most turnovers with 51 but that goes along with his team-high 66 assists.
Eight players on the 49ers roster have 21 turnovers or more on the season. As I mentioned before, this is a young team that has not even played together for a calendar year. For this reason I expect the assist to turnover ratio (0.8) to improve.
All of these statistics beg the question: what is this team’s destiny?
This Charlotte team has unbelievable potential and I believe they will finish the season with a record well above .500, something an Alan Major-coached Charlotte team has not yet done. In order to make the NCAA tournament, the 49ers will probably need to win the A-10 tournament in March. This will be a challenge but is a feat that is certainly possible, given the fact that the conference is as unpredictable this season as ever.
I think Alan Major and the 49ers have done a remarkable job at playing to their strengths and at the same time, not hiding from their weaknesses. Charlotte shoots about half as many three-pointers as their opponents, but they still shoot them to keep the defense honest. They may be making only 65 percent of their free throws, but Charlotte still gets to the line more than their opponents do on average.
The beauty of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament is that virtually nobody can predict the outcome. I’m not sure it will happen this season, but this young squad is equipped with the building blocks that are necessary to make a tournament run in the future.
Free throw shooting must improve, turnovers will probably improve and three-point shooting, well, if you can’t shoot you can’t shoot.
However, this team is athletic, physical and deep. Defense and rebounding has been Charlotte’s bread and butter all season and it has carried them to an impressive 16-4 overall record. As the A-10 conference schedule heats up and we begin to figure out who is who, it will be interesting to see where the 49ers fit.
It will be interesting to see if their impressive defensive numbers are effected by tougher competition. It will be interesting to see if shooting and turnovers improve simply because of time.
With only a third of the season remaining, the 49ers have an NCAA Tournament birth in their eyesight. Soon, we will find out if Charlotte will be included in those brackets we all aimlessly fill out.