Scott Fowler

After painful start, Mark Price hire paying dividends for Charlotte 49ers

Charlotte 49ers head basketball coach Mark Price says he didn’t worry about his suddenly-hot team’s early losses, just how his younger players would react to them.
Charlotte 49ers head basketball coach Mark Price says he didn’t worry about his suddenly-hot team’s early losses, just how his younger players would react to them. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

They lost by 55 to Michigan. They lost by 35 to Davidson. They lost to Elon. They lost to Campbell. They lost what seemed like half their team to transfers.

That was the pre-Christmas narrative for the Charlotte 49ers, who hired a new coach in March and immediately started 1-8.

But in the past two months, new coach Mark Price and a batch of new players have started to change the storyline in Charlotte.

“Early on, we got popped,” Price said Tuesday. “But I think we’ve turned the corner.”

It is a modest turnaround so far. The 49ers are 6-6 in Conference USA and 10-15 overall. But they have won six of their last eight games and scored more than 100 in their last two. And Price, who starts three freshmen, has started to breathe life into a program that disintegrated into irrelevance in the Alan Major (disappointment) era.

Major “mutually agreed” with the 49ers that it was time for him to leave on Selection Sunday 2015. The timing of that announcement served to underscore the fact that the 49ers have not made the NCAA tournament field since 2005.

Price, 52, was a former Georgia Tech standout and four-time NBA All-Star. He was a Charlotte Hornets assistant in March but had never been a head coach at the college or pro level. So he was an out-of-the-box hire who promised an uptempo style and had to re-create a team on the fly. Of his five current starters, only one (Braxton Ogbueze) played much last season.

A painful start

Not surprisingly, things went badly at the beginning.

“As a coach, I wasn’t concerned about the losses,” Price said. “But you get concerned about the psyche of your team when that happens, particularly young guys. I’ve been really pleased how our guys took those hits.”

The first sign that things might not be as bad as they seemed was a productive 10-day practice period around exam time. Shortly afterward, Charlotte lost by three to Georgetown. And the 49ers have been in every single game after that, never losing by double digits in 2016.

Along the way, they found a remarkable fifth-year senior in Joseph Uchebo, a Pitt transfer who is averaging 16 points and 14 rebounds in conference play. Uchebo – 6-10 and 250 pounds – has overcome knee trouble to play so well that he will play professionally somewhere.

“He has just been a monster,” Price said of Uchebo. “He’s the stability our young guys needed, the ‘Hey, Big Joe, if we make a mistake, he’ll clean it up.’”

Charlotte now surrounds Uchebo with four perimeter shooters on offense, employing the same “four-out, one-in” offensive philosophy that coach Steve Clifford likes to use with the Hornets. Like so many college teams, the 49ers tend to live and die by 3-point shots – they have made 203 and given up 203 so far this season.

Price smartly hired a staff that had far more college experience than he did, for the adjustment from the NBA to college coaching he knew would be a challenge.

“There are a lot more irons in the fire at the college level,” Price said. “In pro basketball, you’re a coach. All you do is basketball, 24-7. Other people draft the players and you coach who’s there.

“At the college level, there’s the coaching side, the academic side, the recruiting side – just so much overall responsibility to these kids. Their parents are kind of handing their kids to you. So I look at it like I’ve added 13 kids to my family.”

One of Price’s biological kids – 6-foot-7 son Hudson Price – will play for his father next season after transferring from TCU and sitting out this year because of NCAA rules. “He will definitely be a big part of our rotation,” Price said of his son.

‘Got to go with your gut’

Has Price made some decisions this season he’d like to take back? Sure. Like his players, he’s learning.

On Feb. 6, at home against Old Dominion, Charlotte led by three in the final seconds. ODU had the ball.

Recalled Price: “So they’re coming down and it’s that old debate about, ‘Do you foul and let them shoot two free throws or do you play good defense?’ I chose to play good defense, and we did. But a kid jumps up and hits a 3-point shot, we go to overtime and we lose. So I’m sure there were plenty of people out there thinking ‘Coach Price is an idiot!’ But you’ve got to go with your gut and go through those experiences. That’s just part of being a head coach.”

This is a transition year. The 49ers know that. Many fans remain on the fence. At most Charlotte home games the arena is about half full, as the team has averaged 4,654 fans per home game in 9,105-seat Halton Arena.

But more help is on the way from a talent standpoint. Price is smart and will get better. And some of the close losses will go the other way. This season, in games decided by five points or fewer, Charlotte is 1-7.

“We hate to lose those games, but I’m glad we’ve been in them,” Price said. “Sometimes you want your guys to be disappointed and to find that drive to keep going. We’re knocking at the door. So let’s keep pushing and knock this door down.” 

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