The Charlotte 49ers open their Conference USA season Sunday against Old Dominion at 1 p.m. at Halton Arena. Here’s what we know so far about the 49ers, who are 6-6 and have lost two straight heading into the game against the Monarchs (11-1):
• It’s conference play time, and that hasn’t been a good thing for the 49ers in coach Alan Major’s four previous seasons. Charlotte is 22-42 in the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA over that time. With C-USA considered a likely “one-bid” league for the NCAA tournament, how well the 49ers position themselves for the C-USA tournament is critical. Major’s 49ers (a preseason pick to finish third in the conference) have started league play quickly before – winning at Texas-El Paso in their opener last season; starting 3-0 in the A-10 in 2012-13 – but have faded quickly each time.
• That said, the 49ers might be in better shape heading into league play than in years past after going .500 against a rugged nonconference schedule (one other game out of the league remains against N.C. A&T on Feb. 4). In fact, Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory might not have been too far off base earlier this week when he called Charlotte the best 6-6 team in the country after a 67-66 Yellow Jackets victory.
Junior power forward Willie Clayton has said close losses on the road against Georgetown and Georgia Tech, as well as a narrow defeat at home against Miami, have helped prepare younger players like freshmen guards Torin Dorn and Keyshawn Woods for league play.
• The 49ers’ biggest problem has been starting games slowly. That nearly cost them in victories against College of Charleston and Appalachian State and proved to be too much to overcome in narrow losses against Georgetown and Georgia Tech.
The causes have been varied – poor shooting in the first half against Georgia Tech, for example, or shaky 3-point defense against Charleston.
• Major has always said he wants to play from the inside-out, but this team is very much reliant on its backcourt, especially senior Pierria Henry, leading scorer Braxton Ogbueze and freshmen Woods and Dorn.
Henry, as always a productive if unconventional point guard, is most effective when he drives the lane, where he either gets to the basket or kicks the ball back out (he averages 5.7 assists). He averages 5.9 rebounds and still disrupts games defensively, averaging a league-leading 2.3 steals. His 2.13 assist-turnover ratio is the highest of his career.
Dorn (11.3 points) and Woods (9.1 points and a C-USA leading 56.4 percent 3-point shooter) have been critical for Charlotte coming off the bench. They’ve provided sparks after those slow starts by the starters.
• The 49ers have cleaned up some areas of their game that plagued them earlier. Charlotte has made 54 of 69 (78.2 percent) of its free throws over the past three games, a marked improvement over games such as College of Charleston (16 of 31), Davidson (16 of 28) and UNC Asheville (12 of 26). Also, Charlotte’s past three opponents are shooting just 23.2 percent from 3-point range, after teams like Davidson, George Washington and Charleston torched the 49ers from deep.
The 49ers also average 12.8 turnovers – nearly two fewer than the 14.7 they averaged last season.
• The 49ers’ frontcourt of Clayton and center Mike Thorne has become a liability offensively. The 6-foot-8 Clayton struggles against taller opponents underneath the basket, while Thorne, whose scoring average has dropped steadily since Thanksgiving, is still figuring out how to play out of a double team and not get moved out of his comfort zone near the basket.
“Going into conference play, we’ve got a new record of 0-0,” said Henry. “It’s all about how we bounce back and show what we’ve learned.”