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Sorensen: Charlotte 49ers basketball doesn’t work

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

I have a slogan. The slogan might not be catchy enough to put on a T-shirt. But it’s true.

Charlotte 49ers basketball doesn’t work.

It didn’t work Saturday at Halton Arena in a 59-56 loss to Marshall, which had been tied for last in Conference USA.

Charlotte basketball is not compelling, it’s not entertaining and it’s not good.

This season is the fourth for coach Alan Major. Athletics director Judy Rose offered him a three-year extension last May. I wrote at the time that I didn’t understand why. I still don’t.

Rose doesn’t regret the extension. She says Major and his assistants are recruiting “the right kind of kids.” She says the team has lost focus; it’s not the team it was early this season. But she still believes in the players and the coaches.

You haven’t lost faith in Major?

“No,” Rose says after the game. “No. Absolutely not.”

Major won 10, 13 and 21 games his first three seasons. But he won 21 with a non-conference schedule so soft it could have been designed by ESPN commentator Seth Greenberg when he coached at Virginia Tech.

This season the 49ers are 14-10 overall and 5-6 in Conference USA.

To be fair to the 49ers, Conference USA is not designed for basketball. It’s a home for schools that might not otherwise have one. It includes 16, four of them in Texas.

Charlotte joined the conference to accommodate football. For years, football for the 49ers was a hope and a concept, both faraway. Last fall, the concept became concrete. By the opening kick on opening day at Jerry Richardson Stadium, football had supplanted basketball as the school’s primary sport.

Maybe next season basketball rebounds. Two transfers will become eligible – Florida’s Braxton Ogbueze, a sophomore from Charlotte, and Clemson’s Bernard Sullivan, a junior from Gastonia.

But about this season: There were pieces of snow on the ground and mediocre basketball on the floor Saturday.

Maybe that explains the crowd. Students showed – Charlotte students always show. But as history attests, alumni and the unaligned need a reason to drive to campus from Dilworth and Huntersville, from Concord and Kannapolis.

This isn’t it. There were more people at the Dean Dome Wednesday for Duke-North Carolina. And that game was postponed.

Basketball was a big deal for the 49ers once. They made the men’s NCAA tournament in 1995, ‘97, ’98, ’99, ’01, ’02, ’04 and ’05.

Those were the days when Conference USA rivals Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis came to town, glamour teams with glamour coaches.

When conferences began to expand and contract, plucking the schools that moved them and disdaining the schools that did not, the football-less 49ers were omitted. Their rivals joined the Big East. The 49ers washed up in the Atlantic 10, a good basketball conference that Charlotte fans never embraced. They stayed eight years.

They didn’t make the tournament in Bobby Lutz’s last five seasons – Lurz preceeded Major – at Charlotte or in Major’s three. The 49ers did make the NIT last season, losing in the first round to Providence.

The 49ers are back where they once belonged. They’re back in Conference USA and have three home games remaining – against Middle Tennessee, Alabama-Birmingham and Old Dominion.

I would love to see the 49ers become a factor. Charlotte is surrounded by good basketball – in Chapel Hill, in Durham and in Davidson. Why not in Charlotte?

How do the 49ers, who play in an out of the way basketball conference for schools not in Texas, become meaningful?

They do what Wichita State did and hire a coach who can recruit and lead.

Unless they’re convinced they already have him.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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