Eight months. That’s how long it’s been since Charlotte’s men's basketball team had their postseason ripped away from them after the COVID-19 pandemic started.
The 49ers didn’t get the chance to play in the Conference USA (C-USA) basketball tournament after clinching the fourth seed. They finished 16-13 on the season and 10-8 in conference play.
A lot has changed around the world as the worldwide pandemic has lasted throughout the summer and into the winter, but it’s now time for head coach Ron Sanchez and company to finish what they started last season.
"We have a chance to compete and we are grateful for that," said Sanchez of this season. "We are going to control what we can control."
There’s been a lot of changes to the roster for the 49ers since the last time they took the court. Six players have either transferred or graduated for Charlotte which means a mix of new and old faces will be present.
A lot of questions surrounded the team last season as they had young, unproven talent.
“Last season we were going in with a lot of unknowns,” said Sanchez of last season’s team. “Jordan Shepherd as a transfer, Jahmir Young as a freshman. Those guys hadn’t played a game, we were wondering what we had.”
As both Young and Shepherd both proved to be leaders for the 49ers last season, the 2020-21 season will be their year to bloom. Young was named C-USA Freshman of the Year after averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. In his first season with the team, Shepherd averaged 14.0 points a game.
Sanchez likes the growth of both Shepherd and Young coming into this season.
“I like that combination of those two guys,” said Sanchez of the duo. “I think they really met our expectations last year and there’s still growth in both of them.”
The roster also features senior forward Milos Supica, who averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds a game. As last year’s big man Amidou Bamba graduated, Supica will be an important piece down in the post. Forward/center Anzac Rissetto is another piece that can make a big impact in the post after watching Supica and Bamba his freshman year.
Charlotte will finally get to see guard Caleb Stone-Carrawell in action year as he redshirted last year. Hailing from Concord, Stone-Carrawell could be another guard who can make big time plays for the 49ers.
When it comes to transfers, the 49ers have three total from all over the country.
Guard Jhery Matos spent the last couple of years playing with the University of Dayton, who were one of the top teams in the country last season with a 29-2 record. He’s a graduate transfer who averaged ten minutes a game with the Flyers over the last two seasons.
Marvin Cannon, another transfer who spent two years at Washington State, will be a guard who can bring a veteran presence to the 49ers backcourt. He started with the Cougars 23 times over two years and averaged 6.3 points a game.
Charlotte local Regin Larson is a transfer guard from Pfeiffer University who played in 25 games in his one season with the school.
There will be plenty of talent on the floor for the 49ers this year, but one of the biggest challenges will be how the team handles the new conference scheduling format come January. Teams will play back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday, something that would be unheard of prior to the pandemic. The new format is to limit travel for teams.
A lot of unknowns surround the new format such as how players will get a substantial amount of rest each weekend and how the team will respond to injuries. Sanchez says how the team will prepare and managing their day offs will be crucial.
“I can definitely tell you it’s gonna be a challenge,” said Sanchez. “We just have to tap into our experiences playing tournaments....(We) have to tap into those experiences and just do that every weekend.”
Compared to other years, Sanchez has taken things slow when it comes to getting his guys playing back at full speed. Due to the pandemic, players haven’t been able to play in the offseason like they used to.
“Our return to play has been very cautious,” said Sanchez. “Our return in play has been a strategic plan. Guys are still emerging and showing what they have.”
Charlotte will open the season with a tough task at 12th ranked Tennessee on Nov. 25. The game will be a part of the Volunteer Classic tournament, which also includes a game with VCU on Nov. 26.
No matter who the 49ers play this season, Sanchez and company are happy to be playing on the court after a grueling wait.
"We are looking forward to allowing this sport to give us the opportunity to enjoy one another," said Sanchez. "I think that it has a given us a new level appreciation because we know that it’s not guaranteed."