Alan Major wants to be careful.
Off to the best start in school history, the Charlotte 49ers coach finally has a team that is causing more grins than grimaces among the faithful. Charlotte moved to 8-0 Wednesday night with an impressive win at Davidson and will try to get to 9-0 Saturday in its 2 p.m. home game vs. Central Michigan.
About half an hour after that 73-69 road win at Davidson, I found Major at courtside and asked him, point-blank: Can this team make the NCAA tournament?
Remember, the 49ers were once almost regulars in the NCAA tournament, going seven times in nine years from 1997-2005. But they havent been back to college basketballs hallowed ground since, and that long drought was one reason why Charlotte athletic Judy Rose fired former coach Bobby Lutz.
Majors first two teams at Charlotte were pretty bad. The 49ers have gone 10-20 and 13-17 the past two seasons and only 7-25 overall in the Atlantic 10 conference. Some 49er fans were already grumbling that Major was the wrong guy for the job (he told me he was never worried about his job security).
So this NCAA question is one that Major really isnt used to answering. You could tell that by his response. Eloquent on all other subjects we touched on during an interview, on this he hemmed and hawed.
You know, I mean, theres still so much I need to learn about them, Major said. We have three seniors, a junior and everyone else is a freshman or a sophomore. Weve still got so much learning to do. The big thing Ive been stressing to them is stay humble because the game doesnt owe us anything. Our next opponent doesnt owe us anything. The reason why weve been able to be in this position is theyve come in every day and theyve worked at it.
Notice something? Major never answered the question.
So let me answer it for him. Yes, these 49ers for the first time in a long time have a shot at an NCAA tournament berth.
Its not necessarily a good shot. Its more like a deep baseline jumper with a hand right in your face and a crowd screaming at you to miss. But Charlottes ultra-quick point guard Pierria Henry scored on a shot just like that against Davidson, and it was the biggest basket of the games last five minutes.
Henrys first name is pronounced just like Perrier water, and he also sparkles when hes playing well. A sophomore, Henry is part of two relatively strong, back-to-back recruiting classes that have given Major the deepest base he has had in three seasons.
Our depth is the biggest difference, Major said. Were able to play 9-10 guys and a variety of different lineups. What thats helped us do is maintain a certain intensity level. Were not a 40-minute team yet in terms of our intensity level, but were probably in the high 20s.
Thats interesting. Nolan Richardsons teams at Arkansas once played the 40 minutes of hell style. Now Majors team can at least give teams 28 good minutes of heck.
Charlotte wins games with a frantic defense, one that knocked Davidson back on its heels several times. Davidson coach Bob McKillop would say later that Charlotte completely disrupted our poise and running our system . Instead of staying within the framework of our offense, we were out of position. We had five, six, seven calls where we had someone in the wrong position. It was because of the frenetic nature of their defense.
Team defense is tough to do well. But the 49ers share a key trait with their coach: They work. Major is a grinder he starts each day early at Starbucks and pretty much lives at his office after that.
Im just proud of this team for trying to be a team, Major said. Thats hard to do in this day and age because of the individuality thats taken over in sports.
The best examples are Chris Braswell and DeMario Mayfield, who were starters last season and now come off the bench. There are 347 Division I schools (in basketball), Major said. I think out of the other 346, you probably have those two guys in the coaches office every day wondering: Whats the deal? What about me? These guys have not said a peep When your upperclassmen have become givers, it gets infectious.
OK, I doubt that there is no other school in America that could make that work. McKillop could, for one. So could Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
But I get what Major is saying. Since Braswell and Mayfield have bought in, it makes it a whole lot easier for the entire team to also buy what Major is selling.
Theres no need to get carried away yet by these 49ers. Charlotte started 7-2 last season, whipped Davidson by 23 and then only won six games in the seasons last three months (while Davidson made the NCAA tourney).
But these 49ers who play both Miami and Florida State later this month at least have a chance again to be NCAA-worthy. And thats all good both for the school, and the city, of Charlotte.