Charlotte Head Coach Alan Major would love nothing more than to go to the big dance during the 49ers last dance in the Atlantic 10.
The 49ers (12-2) will host the La Salle Explorers (10-3) in their final Atlantic 10 opener.
Major's squad will come into the game well rested as they have only played one game in the last 17 days. They were able to overcome a slow start and sloppy regulation finish to defeat UNC Asheville last week.
The Explorers will present a different challenge as they possess an explosive offense led by a guard oriented attack. Senior Ramon Galloway paces the Explorers with 17.8 points per game. He's a long range threat as he ranks 12th in the nation with a 46.7 3-point field goal percentage.
Galloway isn't the only guard that the Explorers will attack the 49ers with. Junior guard Tyreek Duren is second on the team in scoring with 15.3 points per game while recently eligible Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland is providing 14.47 points per game off of the bench.
The Explorers enter league play ranked second in scoring (74.3 points) and second in 3-point field goal percentage (38.4.)
In contrast, the 49ers average 69.3 points (10th) and shoot only 28.3 percent from 3-point range, which ranks second to last. Despite the differences in philosophies, Major wants his team to capitalize on any chances they get against the Explorers.
"I would never ask our guys to play exactly like La Salle does because we're built different than they are," Major said. "I think we want to make sure when we do get opportunities to run and play with higher pace that we take those opportunities but we also want to make sure we don't lose our identity in the process."
That identity Major speaks of is the 49ers aggressive defense. While they've been offensively challenged from the perimeter against certain opponents, the 49ers defense has been the constant. They allow only 61.6 points per game and they lead the league by allowing teams to only shoot 36.8 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from the 3-point line.
Explorers Head Coach Dr. John Giannini pinpointed 49ers point guard Pierria Henry as a huge reason for their early success.
"They have a point guard with great intangibles," said Giannini. "It's always great to have a guy you trust with the ball like that. The point guard's also an outstanding defender. He kind of sets the tone both offensively and defensively either by being a great defender on the ball as you bring it up or by making a play or great decision to start the offense."
Even though it's the first game of the conference season, each game has an added importance to it thanks to the depth of the Atlantic 10. His team had a similar start last season entering league play 10-4. They got off to a quick 6-2 start in league play but finished 3-5 down the stretch. His team seems better on paper but he won't go that far.
"I'm not sure it is," Giannini said. "I don't like to evaluate anything until after the season is over. Whether we're better or not, it remains to be seen. Of course we want to be better. Frankly I think it's a matter of experience. Hopefully our guards understand the importance of every possession a little bit better. Getting a little better goes a long way in this league but losing a close game here or there can knock you into the second half awfully quickly. Small things really matter at this point."
Keys for Charlotte
1. Defend the drive and kick: As noted, the Explorers are an excellent 3-point shooting team. They generate many of their open looks with their drives. The 49ers will most likely keep a spy on Galloway since he is their deadliest shooter. However, the 49ers will have to be disciplined and not help off of their shooters if they get into the paint.
2. Grab first chance rebounds: The Explorers take 21 3-pointers a game. Grabbing the rebound off of the first miss will be critical for the 49ers. They cannot give them extra opportunities, especially Galloway. There will be a lot of long rebounds, so it will be imperative for Terrence Williams, Denzel Ingram and DeMario Mayfield to box out their guards on the perimeter.
3. Get off to a good start: The 49ers can recover from bad starts against teams like UNC Asheville. Without a go to scorer, the 49ers cannot afford to expel all of their energy on the defensive end to play catch up. They must be efficient and protect the basketball.
I truly believe that the winner of this game will ride the momentum to a top six finish in the Atlantic 10. The 49ers cannot afford to lose this game. They have a chance to gain early season momentum with the way their schedule is set up this month before the February gauntlet begins. However, their lack of a perimeter scorer is a huge concern. Who will take the big shot in crunch time? Ingram has shown he can hit shots. Williams is in a major funk right now. Will one of them step it up? It remains to be seen.
This is a critical juncture in Major's tenure with Charlotte. The switch to Conference USA is going to hurt their recruiting efforts unless another flurry of realignment happens. There is an uncertainty surrounding the program since they haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2005. He has an excellent freshman class, but he's going to need them to grow up in a hurry and Willie Clayton has answered the call.
If Major can get this team to finish in the top five or six of the league and have a strong showing in Brooklyn, many questions and concerns will be alleviated.
How Charlotte does in their last dance with the Atlantic 10 is vital for the future of the program. It's now or never and it begins tonight against the Explorers.