The Charlotte 49ers will open the second half of their Conference USA mens basketball season with road games this weekend against Tulane and Southern Mississippi.
It will be a chance for the 49ers (14-7, 5-3) to move into the upper echelon of the 16-team league, or to otherwise continue to tread water in the middle of the standings.
Charlotte, alone in sixth place heading into Thursdays games, will face Tulane (11-11, 3-4) on Friday and first-place Southern Miss (19-3, 6-1) in a nationally televised game Sunday afternoon (CBSSN).
Heres a snapshot of the 49ers as they head into the final eight games of the regular season:
Whats gone right
• Charlottes defense has stepped up recently, and that will be a key factor in how the 49ers perform this weekend. The 49ers are holding conference opponents to 44.3 percent shooting, a figure helped by strong defensive efforts last week in victories against Florida Atlantic (37.5) and Florida International (38.5). It wasnt too long ago that North Texas shot 50.9 percent and lowly Rice made 12-of-24 3-pointers against the 49ers.
• Charlottes 3-point shooting (38.0 percent) is the best in C-USA. Ben Cherry, coming off a 5-of-6 night against FIU, leads the league at 52.1 percent. And although Denzel Ingram has cooled recently, he along with Shawn Lester and point guard Pierria Henry are also legitimate deep threats.
• Henry and power forward Willie Clayton are playing the way the 49ers need them to. Henry is one of the least-appreciated point guards in the country and continues to be everywhere averaging 12.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 steals. He still turns the ball over (3.0 per game), but his 2.07 assists-turnover ratio is solid. Hes one of nine players in the country who averages double-figure scoring and at least five rebounds and assists.
Clayton continues to churn out double-doubles (10 this season) and leads C-USA in field-goal percentage (62.6) and offensive rebounding (4.1 per game).
• Sixth-man Shawn Lester is the 49ers wild card. Lester, a sophomore shooting guard, leads the team in scoring (13.0), but its his athleticism and ability to make things happen that set him apart. His impact will only grow as he becomes more comfortable in the 49ers system.
Causes for concern
• Every step the 49ers take forward beating Kansas State and Michigan; opening the league season with a victory at Texas-El Paso seems to be countered by a baffling loss falling by 44 at Florida State; road defeats to Texas-San Antonio and Rice. That doesnt portend well for this road trip. The 49ers havent been good away from Halton Arena (2-5) and need to get that sorted out in the second half.
• Charlotte (67.0 percent for the season) has had stretches where free-throw shooting has been a real problem, including missing 20 against Tulsa and barely making 50 percent (21 of 39) in two games after that against North Texas and Louisiana Tech. And Hack-A-Willie could become a legitimate defense for Charlotte opponents: Clayton is making 52.8 percent of his free throws (47.8 in the league).
• Sophomore center Mike Thorne has been inconsistent of late: his 12 points against FIU were his first in double figures in five games and hes averaged 5.4 rebounds during that span. Guard Terrence Williams shooting has also plummeted; hes made 24.1 percent of his shots over the past four games.
• While the 49ers are 9-2 at Halton, average home attendance of 5,090 is on track to be the lowest since the arena opened in 1996. College basketball attendance has declined across the board in recent seasons and with four home games remaining, there is not much time for Charlotte to bring that number up. Still, the 49ers are third in C-USA in attendance, trailing only UTEP (7,662) and Old Dominion (6,183).
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less