When Conference USA last brought its basketball tournament to Birmingham, Ala., the Charlotte 49ers came away with the championship by winning four games in four days.
That was in 1999, and that’s what it will take for Charlotte again this week, as the 11th-seed 49ers (13-17) play a first-round game against No. 6 Middle Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Birmingham’s Legacy Arena.
Sixteen seasons ago, the 49ers arrived in Birmingham as the tournament’s fifth seed. But under first-year coach Bobby Lutz, Charlotte went on a four-game tear, beating Houston, Southern Mississippi, seventh-ranked Cincinnati and, finally, Louisville for the championship.
The odds are tougher for Charlotte this season. The 49ers finished near the bottom of the conference and will face a Blue Raiders team that won their only regular-season matchup 72-69 in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
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If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s that the 49ers won four of their final seven regular-season games, including an 86-73 victory last Saturday against Marshall at Halton Arena.
Charlotte is Conference USA’s top scoring team, averaging 74.3 points per game.
“We’ve got a good balance, inside and outside, with our scoring,” said 49ers interim coach Ryan Odom. “We’ve got guys who can score it inside and guys who can score and handle the ball outside. When you’ve got those two things going for you offensively, that’s a positive thing.”
The 49ers have just two players who average in double figures scoring – freshman guard Torin Dorn (11.8 points per game) and senior point guard Pierria Henry (10.1). But five other players in the rotation – center Mike Thorne, forwards Willie Clayton and Terrence Williams and guards Braxton Ogbueze and Keyshawn Woods – are all capable of scoring in double figures during a given game.
Defense has been a problem for the 49ers, who allow a league-high 72.7 points per game.
But there is just one number that really matters to the 49ers now:
“Four games in four days,” Williams said. “We know what we have to do.”