If the Charlotte 49ers had written a book about their 2003-04 season, they would have been thrilled with nearly every chapter.
Except the last one.
Accomplishments were everywhere -- tying for the program's first regular-season Conference USA championship, beating top 10-ranked teams on the road, celebrating several individual honors, setting a school record with 10 true road victories, leading C-USA teams in scoring and rebounding. But the 49ers' season crashed to a halt with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Texas Tech.
That, more than anything, is a statement on how far the 49ers have come under coach Bobby Lutz. Making the postseason isn't a novelty. It's expected. So is winning games at that stage.
"You want to go as far in the tournament as you possibly can," Lutz said.
This season, the 49ers appear well-armed for a much deeper run.
FRONTCOURTLast season was a breakthrough for forward Curtis Withers. Once, he was a complementary player. Now he's a go-to guy. Withers had 16 double-doubles to lead Conference USA. He's a reliable scorer, primarily close to the basket, and a tenacious offensive rebounder. He's also a legitimate candidate for the league's Player of the Year honor.
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins is more direct. "Curtis Withers is the best power forward in our league," Huggins said last season. "When they needed a goal to win the game [against the Bearcats], they throw him the ball and he scores."
When Charlotte doesn't want an opponent to score, its strategy is simple. The job belongs to senior swingman Eddie Basden, one of the nation's truly underrated talents. Basden, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is versatile enough to guard a dominant power forward or a slippery perimeter shooter. In fact, he prides himself on being a shutdown artist.
"Eddie Basden is a guy people overlook," Lutz said.
Not anymore. Basden had 27 points against East Carolina. He had 15 rebounds against UAB. He had seven assists against Marquette. For the second straight season, he had 60-plus steals. As a pleasant bonus, his overall offensive game took an upturn, completing his ascension into Charlotte's essential all-around player.
Basden's work can only be helped by the return of sophomore center Martin Iti, who declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft, dipped his feet in the water, then scurried back to Charlotte. Iti, not close to being a finished product, showed flashes of offensive dominance and rebounding potential, but he still lacks consistency.
Junior college transfers E.J. Drayton and Chris Nance will do more than add depth to the frontcourt. They will contend for prime playing time.
BACKCOURTSenior guard Brendan Plavich, a transfer from Vanderbilt, announced his arrival in the most stunning manner imaginable. Plavich had 31 points -- and a season-high 10 3-pointers -- in a riveting 96-92 win at Syracuse.
Plavich led C-USA with 97 3-pointers, marking the sixth straight season a Charlotte player has accomplished that feat. He had a pair of 31-point games and beat Old Dominion with a trifecta in double overtime.
Plavich won't be working in tandem with point guard Demon Brown, who departed the Charlotte program after starring for four seasons, but there may not be much of a drop-off. Junior Mitchell Baldwin has first claim on the job. With an array of scoring options in the lineup, Baldwin can concentrate on his floor leadership, not his shooting.
FINAL ANALYSISThe 49ers have made six NCAA tournament appearances in the past eight seasons and should make it seven of nine this March. In the heart of ACC country, Lutz is attracting quality players who want to add to that legacy.
The 49ers will make their final tour through Conference USA this season. Next year, it's off to the Atlantic 10 to battle the likes of Temple, Xavier and Saint Joseph's. Lutz & Co. would like nothing more than to hang one final C-USA banner in the rafters at Halton Arena.