Today is one week from Charlotte 49ers Basketball Madness at Halton Arena. Let’s kick off the Countdown to Madness by taking a look at the men’s basketball team, who return to Conference USA after a nearly ten-year hiatus.
The 2014-15 season has been circled in the minds of many fans–that’s when Bernard Sullivan and Braxton Ogbueze, transfers from Clemson and Florida (respectively), will be eligible to play after sitting out due to NCAA regulations. Highly touted local products Torin Dorn and Keyshawn Woods will also be in the fold. That edition of the team will be loaded with juniors (Willie Clayton, Denzel Ingram, Shawn Lester) and seniors (Pierria Henry and Terrence Williams).
But before we get to ahead of ourselves, what about 2013-14? How will the Niners fare in their first year back in C-USA? Let’s take a look at some questions surrounding the team.
–How will Shawn Lester emerge? Lester is the big question mark going in. Ruled academically ineligible going into last season, he not only lost a year of eligibility, he couldn’t even practice with the team. Will the success he enjoyed in high school carry over to his college career? That remains to be seen, and depends on how quickly he has been able to pick up on Alan Major’s system. Most importantly, though, he’ll need to keep his grades up, or his time at Charlotte will likely come to an end.
–How will Blakely and Bryan fare? Cam Blakely was regarded as the class of 2013′s #33 power forward by ESPN.com and averaged nearly a double-double in his senior year (16.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg); Marcus Bryan averaged over 17 and 12 in his senior season; both are legitimate shot-blocking threats and will be counted on for both their scoring touch and their rebounding abilities. College is obviously a learning curve versus high school, so the pair’s adjustment to what’s basically a brand-new system will be key.
–Relief for Clayton? Willie Clayton is easily the top interior threat this team has right now; he’s a grinder that’s not afraid to do the dirty work under the net. As time goes on, though, teams will learn to adjust to that and double team him once he gets in the paint. The big question is this: who will be able to step up and take the load off of Clayton when that happens? Blakely and Bryan might be those players, possibly Mike Thorne depending on what role he plays this year (he showed some flashes last year), but we’ll have to see.
–Cherry the answer from the outside? As a team, the Niners shot 26.8% from behind the arc. With the addition of Tulane grad transfer Ben Cherry, they bring in a 50% three-point shooter from last season. Outside shooting was a dimension that the Niners lacked consistently last year, but if Cherry and Ivan Benkovic (and possibly Ingram, who has some 3-point touch) can light it up from distance, the team will be able to put points up in a hurry.
–Can Pierria Henry emerge as a true leader for this team? Henry is without question the top defensive player for Charlotte, perhaps in all of C-USA. But he had the tendency to be reckless with the ball at times last season (94 turnovers), causing some derision among the fan base. With the youth that’s on this team right now, many nights he’ll need to settle things down, put his mates on his back and create plays for his offense, rather than force the issue.
–What’s up with free throw shooting? The Niners shot just over 65% from the line in 2012-13. It hurt this team last year, and it will hurt them again this year if they can’t get that part of their game sewn up.
–What’s up with the perimeter defense? The words “Darien Brothers” should tell you what you need to know about how the Niners’ three-point defense fared at times last season. While the team gave up a respectable 67.6 points a game, they also allowed 6.7 three points a game and 33.3% outside shooting. Very tough to win basketball games allowing that kind of input from deep.
There are obviously many more questions that need to be answered. Only time will tell how some of these will turn out, but they’ll be the difference between a successful season and a long one.