When Tony Benford arrived at North Texas two seasons ago to coach the Mean Green’s men’s basketball team, he scanned the rosters of his soon-to-be Conference USA rivals.
“I looked at my assistant coaches and said, ‘Wow, there are lot of high-major guards in this league,’ ” said Benford, who had been an assistant at Marquette. “They can be playing in the Big East; that’s how good they are.”
Conference USA has indeed become a guard-dominated league. Look no further than the preseason all-conference team, where seven guards were voted to the 10-player unit.
“We’ve got more teams committed to getting up and down the floor in Conference USA,” Charlotte 49ers coach Alan Major said on Wednesday at the conference’s media day. “And you’ve got to have great guards to do that.”
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Major noticed that style of play two summers ago after Charlotte left the Atlantic 10 and was preparing for its return to C-USA, where the 49ers played from 1995-2005. It included three, sometimes four, guards on the floor and smaller, more athletic forwards than what Charlotte was used to seeing in the A-10.
“You see it on film, but you don’t really have it hit you until you play,” said Major, whose team finished 7-9 in league play last season and 17-14 overall. “They had guys playing power forward who were 6-(foot)-5 and fast. The whole league is reflective of that.”
Many of those guards are back this season, including Charlotte’s Pierriá Henry and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth “Speedy” Smith, both of whom were named to the all-conference team.
“You look at the records and you see teams with these kinds of guards,” Texas-El Paso coach Tim Floyd said. “Louisiana Tech won 29 games last season. Charlotte beat Michigan. I can’t tell you why we have so many good guards in our league, but there’s an abundance of them.”
Louisiana Tech, which C-USA coaches voted as the league favorite, is committed to that up-tempo style. The Bulldogs have three all-conference guards – Smith, Raheem Appleby and Alex Hamilton – returning.
What sets guards like Henry and Smith – and others like UTEP’s Vince Hunter and Old Dominion’s Aaron Bacote – apart is their ability to influence the game on both ends of the floor, controlling tempo offensively and defensively. And it doesn’t matter if they’re playing point guard or shooting guard.
“I always say, give me a guard who can get in the paint and can keep the other guy out of the paint,” said Benford, who has his own standout in shooting guard Jordan Williams. “They can get in there and create for themselves and their teammates and be disruptive on defense. They can do that because we don’t have a lot of dominant big men in the league.”
In conference games last season, Smith led C-USA in assists per game (9.31), assist-turnover ratio (3.47) and steals (2.75) last season. Henry, who often alternated between guard spots, was second in the league with 5.88 assists and averaged 1.88 steals.
There will be more depth in Charlotte’s backcourt this season, especially with the addition of Florida transfer Braxton Ogbueze, a combo guard who played in high school at United Faith Christian.
“Braxton is going to allow Pierriá to play off the ball,” Major said. “People don’t realize that Braxton was more of a scorer coming off the ball coming out of high school. They’re going to help each other both out.”
Major is hoping Ogbueze can also help the 49ers with a chronic problem they faced last season while adjusting to the conference’s style and pace: the 49ers averaged 15.3 turnovers per game in league play, worst in C-USA.