There are quite a few things that have changed about men’s basketball since the 2017-18 season. For starters, they beat OK State in their second game this season in a Sports Center Top 10 moment with a play Niner Nation is very familiar with: a buzzer-beating, Jon Davis three.
Obviously, there have been a lot of coaching changes for basketball in the past several years, but anyone that has been watching this team can see that the newest head coach, Ron Sanchez, is determined to help this program reach its full potential.
Prior to arriving at Charlotte, Sanchez spent 12 years as part of Tony Bennett’s staff at Washington State and Virginia. He spent the last three of those seasons as associate head coach at Virginia.
Sanchez and his staff have very evidently made a difference in how this team operates. Of course, there is always still progress to make, but it’s clear how much more these individuals play like a team than in the past few seasons. It’s about the whole as well as the pieces that make it up, not just the individuals. The Niners are working as a true team.
“You’ve got to be willing to dig in. When you feel like you don’t have anymore…dig in.” said Sanchez.
It’s no secret that Davis has been a threat from all areas of the court for the Niners in his time here. But, not too long after this time last year, he declared for the NBA Draft and opted not to hire an agent in order to have the option to return to school for his final season. It seemed like with all of the coaching change drama that Charlotte might possibly be losing one of its staple players at the time, though that was never definite. The three-dropping guard attended camps and worked out in front of teams all across the country this past summer, including the 49ers’ neighbor, the Charlotte Hornets.
Being a college basketball player, especially at a division one school, a lot of people will have opinions about the decisions that an athlete makes but when it comes down to it, yet it’s not up to anyone other than the player themselves. Following Davis’s experience, it was eventually easy to see that he was learning things and growing as an individual talent, and that was especially evident at the start of the 2018-19 season.
“One thing that I did pick up is that in those NBA camps that I went to, everybody is of equal talent and that the separation between all the equally talented people is the little things. How you carry yourself, how you talk to people, the relationships that you build with people…how I address [the media] is a really big deal to them,” said Davis. “There’s more to a basketball player than meets the eye.”
Davis collected 24 double figure-scoring games last season including a career high and Halton Arena record of 38 points in a game against Marshall. Although he certainly has a scoring ability, he’s not stingy with the ball by any means, handing out 10 assists in three games.
So far this season, the guard has tallied 22 double figure-scoring games, including a game against Marshall in which he ended the game just one point shy of his career high. It’s no surprise he’s still letting the ball fall through the net, seemingly with ease. Aside from that, he’s dishing the ball out plenty as well, already tallying 87 assists so far this season.
Davis has grown tremendously as a player since the last season and it could be from a number of things, like the addition of what seems to be a pretty solid coaching staff, his time at the NBA camps, or something he’s been doing differently himself. Whatever it is, it shows.
Along with Sanchez’s direction, the leaders on the team have been working hard to steer the younger, less-experienced players the right way.
Of the 13 players, nine of them would be considered underclassmen and five of them have been consistently rotating for starting spots alongside Davis. The Niners have five freshmen this season, including Malik Martin who is the third leading scorer for the team and the leader in steals, in addition to Cooper Robb who is second on the team for assists with 31 and third on the team for steals.
The Niners have faced quite a few challenges in the past few seasons, and having such a young team this year is just one of them, but Charlotte has been working hard to make the most of their bench.
Sitting down on press row you can hear the conversations amongst fans. When certain players like these two freshmen or like Dravon Mangum or Brandon Younger are on the court and making good plays, especially this far into the season, the discussion often consists of realizing what year they are and being surprised or just sort of impressed that they are doing so well. Not that anyone usually expects one extreme or the other from a freshman at this level, whether it was being the least skilled on the team or the star player, it wouldn’t matter because what’s obvious about these young 49ers is that they are growing.
“It’s a group that really wants to please the coaching staff, so sometimes you design a play…and the right play is to go make your own play. That’s the balance there; they want to execute things correctly and that’s the part of the game that is not seen,” said Sanchez. “They’re not freshmen anymore. They have way too many games under their belts, way too many minutes. Now, it’s just growth.”
Playing together as a team and with a purpose
Last season, not entirely to their own fault, the team seemed to wait for the plays to happen or watch certain players as they made the plays and scored the baskets. Whatever may have been happening outside of game days, there didn’t seem to be enough unity on the court, at least not for a large part of the season.
This time last year, the Niners had a 5-19 record and finished the season with an overall record of 6-23. Currently, they have a 6-18 record.
“The way that we’re moving the ball, the way that we’re sharing the ball, I think we’re playing a game that you can see is five guys on the floor trying to be kind of unified, synchronized. We’re not trying to be one man show, and I think it’s really helping some of the guys.” said Sanchez.
The thing is, that’s truly the difference in the wins. The stats are spread out, there are more people contributing more points and the ball is moving more. Whether it was Davis or former 49er Andrien White, there tended to be a leading scorer and some other minimal helpers. Although, it isn’t every single game from last season that this is evident in. For instance, take the wins each season over ECU.
In 2017, Charlotte won 69-50 with White contributing 30 points and the second leading scorer, Austin Ajukwa scoring 14 points. This season, Charlotte came out on top over the Pirates with a 55-49 win and had three players in double digits. Davis led with 18, Martin followed with 13 and Milos Supica added 10. Just looking at games this season, there was the 84-85 loss against Marshall in which Davis nearly matched his career high, Supica collected 23 points and Brandon Younger also had 10.
And of course, the 66-64 win over OK State that set the tone for how badly this team wants to win. Davis dropped 27 points, Martin had 13 and Mangum had 12. On the other side of the ball, Supica grabbed 12 rebounds and Davis, Martin and Robb each pulled down five. Wins, losses, either way, the Niners are doing it as a team.
“We’re always trying to grow. Whether we win or we lose, [we’re] just genuinely trying to continue our journey as a group.” said Sanchez.