Injuries to a thin and inexperienced roster have forced Charlotte 49ers basketball coach Ron Sanchez to look far - really far - down his bench for help.
As the 49ers (3-10, 0-2 Conference USA) try to break a five-game losing streak Thursday at Florida International (10-5, 1-1), Sanchez will likely need walk-ons Bo Blight and John Kitoko to again step in and fill roles they certainly didn’t anticipate filling when the season began.
They’ve both done admirable jobs in a difficult situation. Blight, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from South Mecklenburg High, is averaging 9.3 minutes in the nine games he’s played. He played 30 minutes and had 10 rebounds in an 85-84 loss against Marshall on Saturday. Kitoko, a 6-0 junior guard from Apex, had five points and five rebounds in 26 minutes against the Thundering Herd.
“There’s a sense of joy to watch a kid not on scholarship have a chance to play,” said Sanchez. “With us, there’s no difference between a scholarship and a non-scholarship guy. All the guys wear the same jersey and are part of this team. They’re helping us be competitive and win, whether the lights are on or if it’s just practice.”
When guard Luka Vasic went out for the season last summer with a knee injury and two other players transferred, Sanchez entered his first season with the 49ers with eight scholarship players on a 10-man roster. After freshman guards Cooper Robb (foot) and Malik Martin (knee) went down with injuries, Sanchez was left with six on scholarship - along with Kitoko and Blight.
“It is different,” said Kitoko. “My mental prep is different. My pregame is different. I get more locked in and focused mentally.”
Said Blight: “I think I was well prepared for this situation by (the coaches). At least my nerves are better now when I get in a game.”
As their walk-on status attests, neither Blight nor Kitoko were highly recruited out of high school. Blight, who averaged 10 points as a senior at South Meck, said he received a few low Division I and Division II offers, but chose to walk-on at Charlotte for former coach Mark Price. Blight, whose father Monty played football at Baylor, saw action in seven games as a freshman and scored one basket.
Kitoko, who helped Apex High win a state championship as a junior, initially went to Louisburg Junior College (where he didn’t play basketball). He transferred to Charlotte and took a walk-on spot for Price, but he was cut before the 2017-18 season. Kitoko said he stayed in shape by arising at 6 a.m. to practice his shooting at Charlotte’s Belk Gym (the old Mine Shaft arena) before getting another chance from Sanchez.
The 49ers have of course felt the absence of Robb (who has missed seven games but could return Thursday) and Martin (the 49ers’ second-leading scorer who has missed two games and was still experiencing soreness in his knee earlier this week). But senior point guard Jon Davis says playing with the walk-ons isn’t as challenging as it might seem.
“It’s up to me as the point guard to make sure everybody blends in,” said Davis, whose 21.4-point scoring average leads Conference USA. “John and Bo might do things differently than Cooper or Malik, but they still do things well.”
Sanchez has stressed to Blight and Kitoko to try not doing too much. For Blight, that’s rebounding and playing tough defense, something he’s done well enough to cost senior center Jailan Haslem playing time (Haslem didn’t play against perimeter-oriented Marshall). For Kitoko, it’s spelling Davis, Jaylan McGill or freshman Brandon Younger in the backcourt.
“We’re very simple (in approach), and I think they understand what we’re trying to do,” said Sanchez. “Stay in your lane. Don’t try to re-create it. Do what you’re asked and try to do that 100 percent of the time, or at least try.
“Take care of the basketball, be a really good defender. Do the non-obvious things really well that will help our team.”