College Sports

Why Jon Davis stayed – and flourished – with the Charlotte 49ers

Jon Davis plays the final home game of his college basketball career Wednesday when the Charlotte 49ers face Rice at Halton Arena.

Davis, the 49ers’ senior point guard, will soon leave as one of the program’s all-time greats: third on Charlotte’s career scoring list (2,056 points and counting) and likely second in assists (538 for now). He is fourth on Conference USA’s career scoring list and one of three active Division I players with at least 1,500 career points and 500 assists.

Davis has had singular moments, as well, including game-winning buzzer beaters against Old Dominion as a sophomore and Oklahoma State earlier this season. He has the three highest-scoring games by a 49ers player in Halton history, including 38 points against Marshall during his junior year.

Davis’s accomplishments would be extraordinary under any circumstance. But playing through much of what has been the most tumultuous era in 49ers basketball history makes his performance all the more remarkable.

“It’s bittersweet,” Davis said. “I’ve loved it here. It’s not been what I expected. But it’s been more than what I could have asked for.”

Davis has played for three coaches in his four seasons. And as systems changed and rosters churned, the 49ers have gone 40-79 during his career (including back-to-back 20-loss seasons beginning in 2017-18) and never so much as sniffed the NCAA tournament. Charlotte hasn’t even qualified for the C-USA tournament the past two seasons.

Through all that, Davis has persevered — and excelled.

“It’s frustrating, but as I’ve gotten older, I see that winning is the main thing that people define as success,” said Davis. “But do I want to be known as a guy who just chased wins because I wanted winning to define me? Or do I want to be a guy who has morals and standards that are what define me?

“My loyalty to my university, how I represent myself by the respect and how I talk to people, that’s what’s really important.”

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Jon Davis will finish his Charlotte 49ers career as the program’s third all-time leading scorer. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Lightly regarded recruit

Davis admits there have been low moments, particularly after his junior season when then-interim coach Houston Fancher was fired and the prospect of playing for yet another coach loomed.

Davis’ first college coach was Mark Price, who was hired in the spring of 2015 after Alan Major was fired. The 49ers were decimated by transfers at the time, and Price had to work fast to restock the roster.

Price and his staff traveled to Virginia to watch Davis, a lightly regarded prospect at Hargrave Military Academy.

“People thought he’d be a tough fit,” said Fancher, then one of Price’s assistants. “They didn’t think he could play point guard on the DI level and he was more of a scorer than a shooter. But when we got in the car after watching him play, we said, ‘We’ve got to have that guy. If we don’t go after him, somebody else will come in and get him.’”

Davis made an immediate impact at Charlotte as a freshman, averaging 11.7 points and 4.7 assists on a patched-together team that would finish 14-19. As a sophomore, his scoring average jumped to 19.2 points, but the 49ers still struggled to a 13-17 mark.

Price was fired after the 49ers started slowly in 2017. Under Fancher, the 49ers finished 6-23, with Davis averaging 17.6 points and 5.5 assists. Then came another coaching change, when new 49ers athletics director Mike Hill fired Fancher and replaced him with Sanchez.

“The hardest thing is to play with ‘one coach does it (this way),’ then ‘one coach does it (that way),’ ” said Fancher, now director of operations and player development for N.C. State’s women’s team. “Jon’s had to make complete changes either in the middle of the year or at the end of the year. He’s still had great years in the face of all that adjustment.”

Soon after Sanchez arrived, Andrien White — Davis’ backcourt mate for three seasons — transferred to Wake Forest. That meant none of the three other players who came to Charlotte with Davis as freshmen were still on the team. The only other senior, center Jailan Haslem, is a junior-college transfer.

All the change shook Davis.

After deciding to enter (and later withdrawing from) the NBA draft last spring, he briefly considered transferring.

“I would be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,” Davis said. “But is that something I wanted to be known for? I had three years at Charlotte already and had made great relationships, not just in basketball, but all around campus and with the alumni.

“When coach Sanchez got here, he made it a lot easier.”

‘A one-man fast break’

The Sanchez-Davis relationship has been fruitful for the 49ers. On the court, Sanchez has had to figure out the best way to use Davis offensively: Did he want him to carry the scoring load, or let younger players who need that kind of experience take their turns? That’s been a challenge, as Davis, who averages 21.2 points, is the only 49ers player averaging in double figures.

The lack of top-level talent around Davis meant opposing coaches knew that containing him was key to beating the 49ers.

“When Jon Davis goes off and has a 30-point night, he’ll give anyone in our league a difficult time to win a ball game,” Texas-El Paso coach Rodney Terry said before Davis scored 21 points in a 68-58 49ers victory against the Miners on Sunday.

Davidson’s Bob McKillop faced Davis four times.

“He was a one-man fast break against us,” McKillop said. “He’s fearless, under control and an outstanding scorer. He has shown that consistently amid the turmoil he has faced on a team where he has lost some outstanding teammates and a lot of games. That’s a testimony to a great young man.”

Sanchez has leaned on Davis for leadership on a thin and inexperienced roster that — like four years ago — was hit hard by players who transferred or otherwise left the program. Four freshmen have played significant minutes. And Davis himself has also had plenty to learn about the new coach’s system.

“Jon deciding to stay shows who he really is,” Sanchez said. “Unfortunately, the lessons I’m trying to teach him this first year are first-time lessons for him. It would have been good for him to have more time for them to probably sink in deeper. But his intent is always right. His heart is always in the right place.”

After Wednesday’s game against Rice, the 49ers (7-20, 4-12 C-USA) finish their season Saturday playing the Owls again in Houston. Davis will play these final few games with nothing really to prove, except to reinforce why Charlotte was the right place for him. Davis will graduate this spring with a degree in criminal justice. Next, he hopes, will be a shot at an NBA roster.

“He’s a finisher,” said Fancher. “He didn’t want to quit because he knew deep down in his heart he had a commitment to Charlotte and he wanted to see it through.

“No one can ever accuse Jon Davis of not fighting through the whole battle.”

David Scott: @davidscott14
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