A part of coach Bobby Cremins’ first true recruiting class at Georgia Tech in the early 1980s, Mark Price witnessed firsthand how the veteran coach laid the foundation for the men’s basketball program.
Patience was key. By the time Price finished his college career in 1986, the Yellow Jackets had transformed from ACC cellar dweller to NCAA tournament contender under Cremins’ watch.
That experience served as a blueprint for Price during Charlotte’s 1-8 start a season ago, his first year coaching the team. He understood the process involved with reviving a program. He ensured things would improve.
A 13-11 finish helped build momentum heading into the offseason. Now, with a year under his belt and a revamped roster pieced together himself, Price and the 49ers look to pick up where they left off in their pursuit of developing a new culture inside Halton Arena.
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“I think with everybody, particularly as the second half of the season last year developed, you could see a real enthusiasm and excitement start to be developed for our program, not only from our players but from the fans and alumni,” said Price, whose team will open its season at home against Newberry on Friday at 8 p.m., preceded by Charlotte’s women’s team against Wisconsin at 5:30 p.m.
“Everybody got excited about the way we play and the style we play. I think our players are excited about continuing to move that forward and try to take it to another level.”
Price’s arrival helped rejuvenate a program that had seemingly faded into irrelevance under coach Alan Major, whose greatest achievement across five seasons was a trip to the NIT in 2013.
With just one returning starter, Charlotte native Braxton Ogbueze, Price led the 49ers to a seventh-place finish in Conference USA. This season, experience could be more of an advantage.
Charlotte has three starters returning – Ogbueze, a senior guard, and sophomore guards Jon Davis and Andrien White. The 49ers also welcome back three additional letter winners in forwards Anthony Vanhook and Reid Aube, and center Benas Griciunas.
These players’ familiarity with Price and his system is bolstered by six newcomers, including three who either redshirted or sat out because of NCAA transfer rules last season.
For Price and the rest of the coaching staff, finding players who would match the culture they’re attempting to build has been nearly as important as bringing in players based on their basketball prowess.
“We want to bring in high-quality character guys into our program,” Price said. “I said when I took the job I wasn’t going to recruit knuckleheads or problem players. They’ve got to buy in, they’ve got to be the right kind of guys and I think our staff has done a really good job with that so far.”
This includes recruiting players who will also excel in the classroom.
Charlotte averaged a 950 multiyear Academic Progress Rate (APR) score in 2004-15. During the 2012-13 academic year, the 49ers’ 928 multiyear score in the APR, an NCAA metric that tracks athletes’ progress toward earning a degree, resulted in a level one practice penalty.
Aware of the consequences of a low APR score, Price has carefully monitored his players’ academic performance.
“I stepped into a situation where we had some things we had to work through, but we feel like we’re in a good place right now with the guys we brought in and moving forward,” Price said. “We always want to try to keep that (APR) at a good place.”
Meanwhile, the place Charlotte would like to find itself by the end of the season would be back in the NCAA tournament, which it hasn’t reached since 2005. The C-USA coaches picked the 49ers to finish eighth in the conference this season.
As he learned nearly 30 years ago while at Georgia Tech, Price understands the importance of having patience.
“I don’t look at going into games or seasons on how many wins or how many losses,” he said. “But are we getting better, are we improving? And I think if you do focus on the right things, I think the wins will come.
“If we’re playing the right way and doing it the way it needs to be done, the success will follow.”
49ers’ new faces
Charlotte’s first-year players, with height, position, class, hometown and comment:
Austin Ajukwa, 6-7, guard, Jr., Columbia: Ajukwa transferred from Clemson last December and will be eligible to play at the end of the fall semester. He averaged 2.7 points in 55 games with the Tigers.
Lukas Bergang, 7-1, forward/center, Fr., Gothenburg, Sweden: Bergang redshirted during the 2015-16 season. He is the sixth 7-footer in 49ers history, joining teammate Benas Griciunas.
Najee Garvin, 6-7, forward, Fr., Lexington, S.C.: Garvin is coming off a postgraduate year at Moravian Prep Academy in Hickory, where he averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds.
Quentin Jackson, 6-3, guard, Fr., Cary: ESPN.com ranked Jackson, who attended Cape Fear Christian Academy, the seventh-best player in North Carolina and the third-best point guard.
Hudson Price, 6-7, guard, Jr., Orlando, Fla.: Price, the oldest son of 49ers coach Mark Price, sat out the 2015-16 season after transferring from Texas Christian. He has two seasons of eligibility left.
JC Washington, 6-7, forward, Jr., Houston: After playing his freshman season at Houston, Washington attended Trinity Valley Community College (Texas), where he averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds.