If I’m a fan of the Charlotte 49ers I look at the men’s basketball team at N.C. State and think, “Why can’t we do that?”
The Wolfpack are on the cusp of returning to the NCAA tournament. They beat Duke this season and split with North Carolina. They’re fast, fearless and fun to watch.
They’re doing this with a first-year head coach, Kevin Keatts. N.C. State found Keatts at UNC Wilmington, where twice in three seasons (his last two) he made the NCAA tournament.
The Wolfpack was not in the basketball gutter to the extent the 49ers are. They made the NCAA tournament in 2012, ’13, ’14 and ’15.
The 49ers last made the NCAA tournament in 2005. The trip was practically annual then. Under Bobby Lutz, they went in 1998, ’99, ’01, ’02, ’04 and ’05.
Then their conference disintegrated. The chosen ones, the schools with basketball and football and a desirable market, joined the Big East. The 49ers, which lacked football, scrambled to find a home, and joined the Atlantic 10.
The A-10 never worked. Lutz was muted, didn’t make the tournament again and was released in 2010.
Since then, the 49ers have been a basketball wasteland. This season they’re 5-22, 1-15 in Conference USA and 0-2 in coaches. They fired Mark Price in December and replaced him with assistant Houston Fancher. The hastiness with which they fired Price is the only quickness the 49ers have shown all season.
Alumni, students and fans deserve more than this. Now that the 49ers have an athletic director, they need to find a basketball coach. Maybe, like N.C. State, they’ll stay close to home and look at the coaches at Winthrop and Wofford. Maybe they’ll consider Lutz. He was good before and, after a layoff as a head coach, he’ll be better. Maybe they’ll go national.
Charlotte’s last two coaches had no collegiate head-coaching experience. Mark Price might have made it; he was canned so quickly we’ll never know. Could he recruit? We’ll never know that, either.
So hire a man that we know can. The 49ers can’t guess this time. Find somebody like Keatts, whose confidence is absolute. He’s earned the right to be confident.
The 2018 men’s NCAA tournament, perhaps the finest end to a season in U.S. sports, will be the 13th straight in which the 49ers have not participated.
The closest Charlotte fans will get is Spectrum Center. The 49ers will host first- and second-round games there.