Charlotte opens the 2019-2020 season with many new faces and a sound foundation of experienced upperclassmen on the roster to help guide the way for the 49ers.
“There will be nine guys that wear a jersey on game day for us that didn’t last year,” said Assistant Head Coach Kotie Kimble.
Charlotte welcomes graduate transfers Amidou Bamba and Drew Edwards to the roster, as well as a talented group of freshmen featuring three-star recruit Jahmir Young.
As a result of the influx of new players, many of the 49ers are unfamiliar with Head Coach Ron Sanchez’s complicated scheme and are having to learn on the fly.
“I hate to say this, but we’re pretty much starting in the same place we started 12 months ago,” said Sanchez. “There aren’t many guys with a lot of experience, so for us to continue to grow and learn every day is important.”
Despite the 49ers’ lack of experience and familiarity with the intricate system, Sanchez still has high expectations set for his team.
“My expectations haven’t changed from when I first got here,” said Sanchez. “There’s nothing here that is numeric; everything is qualitative. We just want to play quality basketball every possession.”
Returning players, including last season’s second-leading scorer Malik Martin and guards Jordan Shepherd and Cooper Robb will take on expanded leadership roles, teaching the team the details of Sanchez’s system. Martin, Shepherd and Robb’s on-the-court leadership and guidance should act as a catalyst to the development of the new players’ understanding of the 49ers’ scheme.
“Last year, we were all new to the system besides the coaches, so we didn’t really have anybody to teach us. We were learning as we went,” said Robb. “This year with me, Brandon, Malik, Shepard, Tyler and Milos all back, we can all help the new guys learn it much quicker. We can get into the swing of things a lot easier than we did last year.”
Charlotte’s upperclassmen leadership will be critically important if the 49ers want to improve upon last season’s 8-21 overall record.
The 49ers’ Achilles' heel last season was offensive efficiency and production. As a team, the 49ers ranked 346th out of 351 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball teams in points per game with an average of 61. Additionally, the 49ers ranked 348th out of 351 teams in assists per game with a meager average of 9.9. Both averages were last in the Conference USA.
Furthermore, the 49ers were also incredibly turnover prone, averaging 14.5 turnovers per game last season. Charlotte garnered the 347th best turnover to assist ratio in the country last season and registered the 324th best turnover margin in the country.
“For us, taking care of the ball is really important,” said Sanchez. “[As coaches], it’s about making sure that they understand that we have to value possessions and that we have to take care of the basketball. I think it is one area we really need to work on.”
A large part of Charlotte’s improvement on the offensive end starts with Martin, who was the team’s second-leading scorer. In the absence of Jon Davis, the 49ers’ leader in points per game by 12 last season, Martin will be expected to score at a significantly higher volume.
“I am working on improving my ball handling and becoming a more consistent shooter,” said Martin during the summer.
One factor coaches and players believe will help Charlotte develop their play is having a full roster this season. Last season, the 49ers struggled with injuries and often played with very few players. This season, however, the 49ers have a full roster to field during games and practices.
“The biggest challenge last season was figuring out practice, not having enough bodies,” said Sanchez. “Now, obviously, we can plan accordingly and challenge each other well. When you have guys with decent talent going against each other, it definitely makes an improvement.”
Shepherd echoed Sanchez’s sentiments during a post-practice interview.
“It’s very competitive [and] much different than last year considering we have a lot more players,” said Shepherd.
While Charlotte struggled to establish an offensive rhythm in Sanchez’s first season, the 49ers quickly picked up the pack-line defense that Sanchez instilled after leaving UVA, a team known for their stout pack-line defense, for Charlotte. The 49ers ranked fifth in the C-USA and 99th in the nation in points per game allowed to opposing offenses last season.
“We have to defend well and we have to be in a defensive stance for thirty seconds,” said Sanchez. “These things are a bit unnatural, but for them, it’s something that they’ve been working on since they arrived, so they do see the value of being a really good defensive team.”
While the 49ers played stout defense last season, they have continued to practice and develop their defensive prowess over the offseason. In many of the 49ers’ second year of playing in the pack-line defense, fans may still see Charlotte take significant strides towards improving on an already stifling defense from a season ago.
“Oh yeah, we’re getting a lot better,” said Shepherd. “They always told us it was going to take a year to be able to play the pack-line defense and I think that’s really showing in practice. These young guys are picking it up very quickly.”
The addition of Bamba will improve the 49ers’ defense as well. With a 6’9", 235 pound frame, he presents a formidable threat as a rim-protector and fulcrum of the 49ers defense. In addition to Bamba, the 49ers have a deep stable of big-men capable of playing quality defense in the paint.
However, the 49ers struggled to defend the perimeter last season. In a conference game featuring sharp-shooters including Southern Miss’ LaDavious Draine, Rice’s duo of Trey Murphy III and Robert Martin, and North Texas’ Umoja Gibson, perimeter defense is a premium.
Much of the 49ers’ success this season will depend upon the development of Robb, Martin, Shepherd and the rest of the 49er guards as perimeter defenders.
“Getting them to understand the importance of us really guarding will be something that they need to experience when we start playing,” said Assistant Coach Aaron Fearne.
Charlotte begins the season with a tough slate of games including at home against last season’s fourth rated high school basketball prospect in the nation, Anthony Edwards and the Georgia Bulldogs. The Niners also have games scheduled against Wake Forest, Appalachian State, Georgia State and UNC Wilmington before diving into the teeth of their conference schedule.
Charlotte begins their season with new faces and seasoned veterans looking to flourish in their second year of Sanchez’s system away on Friday, Nov. 6 against James Madison at 7 p.m.
“We’re ready to go,” said Drew Edwards.