Charlotte 49ers (2001: 22-11)
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As the final seconds ticked away in Charlotte's commanding 80-72 whipping of Cincinnati in the Conference USA championship game last season in Louisville, the Charlotte fans began chanting, "One more year! One more year!"
The cries were directed at Rodney White, the magnificent 6-9 forward who averaged 18.7 points as a freshman. It was, however, a foregone conclusion that White was going to apply for the NBA draft, and, when he did, his decision was vindicated: He went in the top 10.
"I would do it again in a heartbeat," Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said of his decision to rely on a player who likely was leaving after one season. "Where our program was and is, we have to take the best players who want to come and play for us."
The departure of White seems to leave Charlotte without the dynamic player it needs to compete for a C-USA regular-season title.
The 49ers, however, have a penchant for proving themselves better than perceived and making others look bad for underestimating them. The void White leaves is huge, but the 49ers did not make the second round of the NCAA tournament without other talented players and a proven system.
Three starters are back from last season's team, and the 49ers will feature what Lutz believes is perhaps the school's best-ever backcourt. The three-balls will be flying, but this team also has several players capable of breaking a defense down and making inside players very effective.
Charlotte, a fixture in the C-USA championship game, is conceding nothing. Lutz loves the versatility of this squad, and believes he has the kind of athletes who can ratchet up the defense, both the halfcourt and fullcourt variety.
Of Conference USA's potential stars, senior shooting guard Jobey Thomas (14.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg) may be the least regarded nationally. A 6-4 gunslinger, Thomas possesses the quickest outside release in the league and is relentless running through a gauntlet of screens, like a skier slicing through a slalom course.
Thomas already owns the C-USA record for three-pointers made (236), and he raised his accuracy considerably last season, hitting 40.2 percent from long range for the season and a remarkable 45.5 percent in league games. He also broke Conference USA's record for threes in league games (56 for 3.5 per game) and twice tied the league record for threes made in a game with seven against DePaul and Louisville.
Demon Brown (11.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.0 apg), a 6-1 junior, started the first half of the season at point guard and looked a sure bet to make an all-league team of some sort. For Brown, last year was a rookie season after sitting out his freshman year as a non-qualifier, and his struggles after the New Year made him a sixth-man.
At times, Brown simply got too far ahead of himself and his teammates with his desire to score and create pace. He had only 77 turnovers, but he too often rushed up the first shot available or tried to use his breakdown abilities to go one-on-one instead of letting the multi-layered Charlotte offense develop.
He hit .353 from three-point range, but needs to do better than .384 overall. His demeanor and role in Charlotte's stretch run, while backing up Diego Guevara, suggested a maturing player who can be a great leader once he is fully in charge up top.
Lutz and staff made sure the 49ers will continue to stay potent from the perimeter by signing Mitchell Baldwin (17.7 ppg, 5.1 agp), a 6-2 freshman from Rural Hall, N.C. The Winston-Salem Journal selected Baldwin its player of the year two straight years, making him only the fifth player to earn the honor -- and the first to play outside the ACC.
Baldwin, who has a 36-inch plus vertical leap, is a combination guard who will see minutes at both guard spots and has the ability to become one of Charlotte's best perimeter defenders. Lutz says Baldwin is quicker than Brown, and rivals Thomas in his ability to get a shot off from the outside.
Eddie Basden, a 6-5 freshman from Upper Marlboro, Md., and Curtis Nash, a 6-6 junior transfer from Dallas' Hill Junior College, bring athleticism on the wing and will more than fill the void left by James Zimmerman on the wing.
Nash (16.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 5.0 apg) can play the one-, two- or three-spots, but needs to add strength.
Basden (18.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) was headed to UMass until Bruiser Flint was fired, and Lutz believes he could make an immediate impact on the wing. He's more of a forward, with Nash more of a guard.
Charlotte's interior will be held together by senior Cam Stephens (7.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), the former Purdue big man who, at 6-8, 240, established himself as a very effective blue-collar player in White's shadow. He had the same number of rebounds (248) as points (248).
Stephens had shoulder surgery in the offseason, but is full recovered. Lutz said he has also slimmed down some.
Kevin "Butter" Johnson (3.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg), a 6-8 sophomore, showed steady progress throughout the season, and was a valuable role player during Charlotte's stretch drive. Johnson saved his best for last, producing career highs in points (nine) and rebounds (eight) in the NCAA Tournament win over Tennessee. In the last five games of the regular season, Johnson averaged 5.8 points while hitting .688 from the field.
A versatile and athletic forward, Johnson can play the three or the four. Most likely, you'll see him out in a 4-1 set as the power forward and Stephens inside as the center.
Matas Niparavicius (0.9 ppg, 0.9 rpg), a 6-9, 220-pound sophomore from Lithuania, has more potential than he showed in his initial season. Injuries derailed him whenever Lutz and staff were getting ready to show him more minutes.
Sophomore Tory Reed (2.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg), like Johnson, spent a season at prep school before arriving as a freshman last season. Reed battled tendinitis early in the season and never really became a factor. At 6-8, 240, Reed can help inside, especially on defense, though Lutz sees him as "probably our best low-post scoring option.''
Senior Jermaine Williams (1.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg), at 6-10, 240, should also get a chance to become a consistent player inside.
With Brown and Thomas starting and guys like Baldwin, Nash and Basden supporting, the 49ers will feature one of the best backcourts in Conference USA and the nation. Thomas and Brown are tough and fiery leaders, and this 49er team should warm to their personalities.
This does not mean Charlotte will rely solely on the outside shot, though Thomas will cause nightmares with his range and hustle and consistency.
Inside, Lutz is very confident that Stephens and Johnson will contribute and make the 49ers competitive in a physical, athletic league. And though there isn't great interior depth or vast experience to choose from inside, Lutz does like the versatility his big men will provide.
Charlotte needs one of the wings, Nash or Basden, to develop quickly and provide the hinge an excellent backcourt needs with a less reliable frontcourt.
Can Charlotte compete for another C-USA title? This is yet again a 49er team with some very good elements and lots of role players, and that formula has been successful in the past.
This is a team that, with great defense, could emerge as an NCAA tournament contender and legitimate threat to Cincinnati in the American Division. We'll call Charlotte an early favorite for the first NIT bid from Conference USA, while refusing to eliminate the possibility of a spot in the Big Dance.