Joseph Uchebo is on a rebounding tear the likes of which the Charlotte 49ers have never seen.
Uchebo, a 6-foot-10 senior graduate transfer, averages 11.1 rebounds per game, the best mark in Conference USA and in the top 10 nationally. His 18.2 average over the last five games is the most of any 49er over a five-game stretch in school history. His 21 rebounds recently against Marshall and 20 against Louisiana Tech approached the 49ers’ single-game record of 24.
“He’s been unbelievable,” first-year 49ers coach Mark Price said. “I don’t know where we would be right now with out Joe. He’s been a rock for us since Day One. The numbers he’s put up are phenomenal, 17 or 20 rebounds in these games. I don’t care where you play, what school, what level you play. He’s been amazing.”
Uchebo’s impact on the 49ers’ program, however, goes deeper than his rebounding statistics. After years of mediocrity, Charlotte (6-13, 3-4), which plays a C-USA game Thursday at Florida International, is in what Price hopes is the early stages of a basketball renaissance.
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I don’t care where you play, what school, what level you play. He’s been amazing.
Charlotte coach Mark Price
With a roster full of mostly freshmen and junior college transfers, Uchebo – a native of Nigeria who graduated from Pittsburgh after playing two seasons for the Panthers – is proving to also be a strong and reliable guiding force for Charlotte’s youngsters.
As the 49ers prepared to play Syracuse in November in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, a nervous freshman point guard Jon Davis pulled Uchebo aside.
“He said he was scared,” Uchebo said. “I told him, they were scared too; they were scared to lose to us. Everyone has the same feeling. You have to have that confidence to perform.”
The 49ers trailed the Orange by 23 points at halftime, but made the game respectable in an 83-70 loss.
“He was in the ACC with Pitt and he knew Syracuse, probably better than our coaches,” Davis said. “We were at our downpoint, really trying to figure out what was going on. But he kept us in it. It became a learning thing for us.
“It’s called senior leadership, experience. He has it. We don’t.”
From Nigeria to Charlotte
Uchebo has plenty of experience from which to draw.
Growing up in Enugu, Nigeria, the gangly Uchebo played soccer until he was noticed by his school’s basketball coach (Uchebo’s older brother Michael played for Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup). His size and his talent got noticed by a scout at a basketball camp a few years later. Soon, he was off to the United States, where he would play in high school at Mount Zion in Durham and, later, at national power Word of God in Raleigh.
Uchebo developed rapidly at Word of God and was ranked as one of the top 10 centers in the country his senior season in 2011. By the time Uchebo was finished at Word of God, he had verbally committed to play at N.C. State.
Uchebo has not only helped the 49ers on court, but he’s been there for his young teammates off the court.
But complications with his high school transcript – he had taken two classes that weren’t certified by the NCAA – scared off N.C. State. Uchebo ended up at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.
Again, Uchebo flourished on the court. Again, a complication. This time it was a knee injury after he averaged 12.3 points and 12.3 rebounds as a freshman.
Uchebo spent his sophomore season rehabbing the knee and was granted a medical redshirt. He had attracted the attention of Pitt coach Jamie Dixon as a freshman and signed with the Panthers in 2012. After another year of rehab, Uchebo finally returned to the court, playing 29 games in two seasons with four starts.
Uchebo said he didn’t think Dixon was ever fully convinced that his knee had sufficiently healed, which affected his playing time. So when he graduated last spring, Uchebo headed to Charlotte, a school that recruited him in high school, for one final college season.
‘He rebounds ... like crazy’
Uchebo’s aching knee has healed enough that he hasn’t missed a game for the 49ers. Price said he doesn’t practice much and wants to keep him fresh for games.
“My knee’s pretty good,” Uchebo said. “I’m not going to sit out. It’s OK, it’s getting better.”
Uchebo said his rebounding skills come naturally.
57.1 Uchebo’s shooting percentage
“It’s a gift for me,” he said. “I don’t even know, to be honest, how I’m getting these rebounds. It’s a mindset of what I want to do. If I go for a rebound, I don’t think anybody can stop me. I just want to win and play hard.”
Uchebo is also scoring at a good pace; he’s averaging 11.5 points and shoots 57.1 percent from the field.
“He rebounds the ball like crazy,” Davis said. “It seems like he’s always in right place at the right time. He cleans up your misses.”
He is also helping his young teammates learn how to win. After grinding through a rugged nonconference schedule, Charlotte has been competitive in the league and has won two in a row.
“The young guys are starting to get it together now, hopefully we’ll start building this up,” Uchebo said. “They show me some respect. They come talk to me, about games, about how they feel, what they’re thinking.”
With this being Uchebo’s final season in college – and his only year at Charlotte – the young 49ers are listening.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” freshman guard Andrien White said. “I wish we could ride this one out with Joe for four years straight.”
On the rebound
Joseph Uchebo has averaged 18.2 rebounds over the Charlotte 49ers’ last five games, the most over a five-game stretch in school history:
Louisiana Tech 20
Middle Tennessee 18
Western Kentucky 13