College Sports

Practice tips off Charlotte 49ers’ basketball season: Here are 5 storylines to watch

First-year coach Ron Sanchez gives some shooting tips to Charlotte 49ers freshman guard Brandon Younger during the 49ers’ first practice of the season.
First-year coach Ron Sanchez gives some shooting tips to Charlotte 49ers freshman guard Brandon Younger during the 49ers’ first practice of the season. Special to The Observer

The Charlotte 49ers began men’s basketball practice Tuesday with a new coach and hopes of quickly erasing the memories of a 6-23 season, one of the worst in program history. Here are five storylines to watch for with the 49ers, whose season opens Nov. 6 against Chattanooga in Halton Arena:

New coach

Ron Sanchez replaces interim coach Houston Fancher, who replaced Mark Price, who was fired after the 49ers got off to a 3-6 start last season. This is Sanchez’s first head-coaching job, but he’s got the pedigree for it, serving under Tony Bennett for 12 years at Washington State and Virginia. Sanchez hired three assistants - Aaron Fearne, Vic Sfera and Kotie Kimble - and also brought back former 49ers star Byron Dinkins to be the team’s director of player development.

First-year head coach Ron Sanchez gives instructions to his team during the Charlotte 49ers’ first practice of the season. Jonathan Aguallo Special to The Observer

All about the defense

Sanchez brings Bennett’s well-publicized (and very effective) “pack” defense with him from Charlottesville (Sanchez reminds that the defense is not called “pack line” as it has been in the media in recent years). The defense, which stresses keeping the opposition out of the paint and forcing it into hurried jump shots, worked well at Virginia. Sanchez said he will be a defense-first coach, and, despite criticism of how that style can slow a game’s tempo, he is committed to it.

“There’s no-one on-ones (defensively),” said senior center Jailan Haslem. “Everyone on the team is helping out in some way or fashion. As long as we have that unity, we’ll be OK.”

Lineup uncertainty

There was roster turnover in the offseason, with shooting guards Andrien White (Wake Forest) and Ryan Murphy (New Mexico Junior College). Then shooting guard Luka Vasic was lost for the season with a knee injury and forward Najee Garvin was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested last week for misdemeanor assault of a female.

Charlotte 49ers senior Jon Davis will be one of the top point guards in Conference USA. Jonathan Aguallo Special to The Observer

Senior Jon Davis has point guard locked up, as does Haslem at center. Sophomore Milos Supica, who was impressive at times last season, is the likely starter at power forward. The other slots - small forward and shooting guard - are question marks.

New faces

Finding a shooting guard could be Sanchez’s toughest task, and it might have to be a true freshman like Malik Martin (who averaged 21.8 points as a senior in high school in Staten Island, N.Y.) or true freshman Brandon Younger (who averaged 13 points, six rebounds and six assists as a senior at Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga.).

Davis’ task

Davis, who returns for his senior season after briefly testing the NBA draft market last spring, will be among Conference USA’s top point guards again. But much will be asked of him. He averaged 17.6 points, 5.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds as a junior, but his leadership will be tested on a team that is in rebuilding mode under Sanchez.

“This year will be a lot like my freshman year, when we had two seniors and a lot of freshmen,” said Davis. “I’m just trying to tell them we can’t get down on ourselves if we lose a game. College basketball is a six- or seven-month process. We can’t get down on ourselves if we lose one game, or it can turn into going 6-23 or losing 15 in a row.”