Blue Ribbon Snapshot of the 49ers

It seemed innocuous at the time – a rare, early-season regional affair between the defending national champions and an also-ran from Conference USA.

Instead, Syracuse was entangled in Charlotte’s web, shot down by Brendan Plavich’s 10 threes in a 96-92 wake-up call at the Carrier Dome.

The rest might be considered pre-history. The 49ers went 21-9 overall and claimed a fifth of the C-USA regular-season title with a 12-4 mark, after winning just 13 games total in 2002-03.

However, last season could merely be a prelude to the mother load; four starters – including a first-team all-conference performer and a prodigal center who also chafed at also-ran status – are back.

“Did we surprise some people across the country? That’s certainly possible,” 49er head coach Bobby Lutz said. “Maybe at Syracuse [we were overlooked]. But if you read the comments from coaches in our league, they know what we’re capable of and what we’ve done in the league.”

Folks around Charlotte and the conference already knew what junior Curtis Withers (16.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg) brought to the gym every night. After starring for the gold-medal winning USA Basketball 21 and Under team and being selected to the John Wooden Award watch list last August, Withers is going national.

Bearing a chiseled 230 pounds on a 6-8 frame, Withers was the second-leading rebounder in C-USA last season and topped the league with 16 double-doubles. In the FIBA Americas World Championship Qualifying Tournament final in Halifax, Canada, Withers scored 17 points and blanketed Puerto Rico’s 7-2 center, Peter Ramos, in the second half of the 97-86 U.S. victory.

“Up there, they compared him to Ben Wallace in terms of his mentality and toughness,” Lutz said. "He’s not the biggest guy. [USA Basketball head coach] Kelvin Sampson said he’s not even one of the seven or eight most talented guys. But his mentality – he just comes to play every day.

“He can face up and drive the basketball. He can score inside and out. I think he possesses a unique combination for a 6-8 guy. He can hurt you inside, he can hurt you outside, and he can rebound like a madman.”

Withers’ front line running mate, 6-9 sophomore Martin Iti (6.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 35 blocked shots), almost bypassed a return to Charlotte. Iti, a native of Sydney, Australia, and the 49ers’ first-ever top-10 prep recruit, declared for the NBA draft but did not sign with an agent.

“I just wanted to see where I stand,” he said at the time.

“My advice was for him to wait a year to use it,” Lutz said. "Once you use the early entry, if you withdraw from the draft you can’t use it again.

“It was always a friendly situation. I gave him my opinion, but ultimately he and his family decided that they wanted him to try it now.”

Iti had a terrible pre-draft camp in Chicago, making just 6-of-24 shots. Moreover, he measured only 6-9-instead of the listed seven feet. Wisely, Iti withdrew from draft consideration and returned to Charlotte to build upon a C-USA All-Freshman Team campaign.

“He’s charged, motivated, a competitor, and I think this process will only make him even more motivated to continue to improve to get where he wants to be,” Lutz said.

Alongside Withers and Iti in the frontcourt is 6-5 senior Eddie Basden (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 68 steals), the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. Basden is the first 49er to post 60 or more steals in two straight seasons and led the team in assists in conference play from the small-forward slot.

Basden’s defensive range is practically unlimited. He shadowed Cincinnati’s 250-pound power forward Jason Maxiell and Louisville’s 6-7 perimeter gadfly Francisco Garcia with equal fervor.

“He does a little bit of everything for us,” Lutz said. “He can guard anybody one through four, and we often put him on whoever we think needs to have the best defender.”

The fourth returning starter is Plavich (12.2 ppg, 97 three-pointers), a transfer from Vanderbilt who was chosen team captain before he even played a game at Charlotte.

“In our bad year – while he was sitting out, we had the worst year we’ve ever had – he was still positive,” Lutz said. “Even though he couldn’t play every day, he brought unbelievable passion to practice every day.”

Plavich extended Charlotte’s legacy of outstanding three-point shooters – a 49er has led C-USA in three-pointers made in each of the last six seasons – but he was extremely streaky, converting 36.5 percent of his bombs overall. One-dimensional Plavich is not; the 6-2 senior was second to Basden on the team with 42 steals in '03-'04.

“You look at him, he’s probably not tall enough. He’s probably not quick enough. But he has an unbelievable spirit,” Lutz said.

Speaking of sublime shooters, Demon Brown leaves Charlotte as one of the program’s finest marksmen, although his senior year output (.318 3PT) was somewhat disappointing. In his stead steps 6-2 junior Mitchell Baldwin (5.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg), whom Lutz dubbed “the fastest man on the planet with the ball in his hands.” However, Baldwin is not nearly the shooter Brown was, and his 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio last year was so-so.

“He now has to show that he can consistently run a team from the point guard spot,” Lutz noted. “It’s his job to lose.”

Baldwin’s challenger at the one is 6-1 freshman Leemire Goldwire (21.5 ppg), Florida’s 5A Player of the Year after hoisting Dwyer High to a 35-3 record and a state title. Goldwire was in Charlotte all summer, playing pickup with his new teammates, and Lutz is confident he will challenge for PT on the QT.

“I think he’s one of the most underrated guards I’ve ever recruited,” Lutz said. “You talk about a kid that’s a winner, that can score, that can defend. He’s a little small, but he’s a very good basketball player and will not back down from anybody.”

Another new candidate for either guard spot is 6-2 freshman Jerrell Lewis (18.0 ppg, 5.0 apg), a teammate of North Carolina’s Rashad McCants a couple of years ago at New Hampton (N.H.).

Experienced depth elsewhere in the lineup will come from 6-7 senior C.J. Pigford (3.5 ppg, .430 FG) and 6-4 senior Chris Sager (2.5 ppg, .419 3PT).

Lutz is also looking for help from a pair of 6-8 JUCO transfers – Chris Nance (14 ppg, 7 rpg), from top-ranked Redlands Community College in Fort Lauderdale, and E.J. Drayton (17.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg), a JUCO All-American from Colby (Kansas) Community College.

Nance’s banger style of play is a nice insurance policy for Iti. “Chris is a power post player who will provide a physical presence immediately,” Lutz said. “He is an exceptional defender and rebounder and scores around the basket.”

Drayton is versatile enough to play either forward spot. “EJ is a terrific forward who can play a couple positions on the basketball court, which makes him extra dangerous,” said Colby head coach Brian Ostermann. “He’s an extremely smart basketball player who can not only score but also rebound.”

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: C
FRONTCOURT: A
INTANGIBLES: A-

Charlotte was the top scoring and rebounding team in Conference USA last year. So why were the 49ers lodged with four other schools at the top of the league and eventually banished from the NCAA Tournament by Texas Tech in the first round? Simple – blasé defense (the 49ers surrendered the most points per game in C-USA) and weak free throw shooting (64.9 percent ranked third from the bottom in the league).

“Never does one thing cost you, but [the free throw shooting] contributed to several losses,” Lutz said. “We need to be a better foul shooting team, because we’re going to rebound the ball well again and I think we’ll be able to drive and get fouled a lot.”

For a roster with several talented individual defenders, Charlotte should not be allowing C-USA foes to shoot 43.1 percent from the floor. The 49ers can score with any number of lineup combinations; if they shore up the defense, they can possibly find themselves ranked.

“The key for us is to become a consistently better defensive team,” Lutz said. "For us to make the next step, we have to be very good in our man-to-man and our ways to change defenses. If we do that, we can make the next step to beat the teams we need to beat to get to where we want to go.

“There are five teams that legitimately think they have a chance to win the league. And I think we’re one of them.”

Definitely the best write-up on the Niners so far. Also, kudos to Blue Ribbon for being honest about Iti’s height, as well as not reprinting the “urban legend” that our 6-9 Aussie considered a transfer to JUCO-land!

Blue Ribbon once again proves that they are THE college hoops bible.

I’m going to start buying that yearbook. It’s just so well done.

I would dicker just a tad with our bench strength rating. I think they have underestimated EJ’s potential impact. B/B- on bench strength I think is fair. Otherwise, awesome write up.

I agree, NA - especially with EJ coming off the bench I’d think the bench rating gets a B- at least. Awesome write-up though, this is what you get when you actually research a team first!!

wow, good write up. I agree with everything, even the bench score. We have 2 guys to backup 3 positions right now, it might be good because it’ll put our best players out there more, but we are one injury away from serious panic in our frontcourt. That combined with no experience behind Mitch leaves for a little room to worry.

I really like all the things coach is saying about Goldwire, I think he can become one of the fans favorite 49ers if he brings his toughness and defense every night. He just seems like a gritty player who will go all out all game long, can’t wait to watch him mature and improve over the next 4 years!

It’s a very honest write up, improve defense and FT shooting and we will be ranked. It points out honest flaws(with Eddie, Mitch and Curtis how were we giving up such a high FG% last year?) and it obviously well researched and written. Very impressive, it seems as if a lot of these magazines only do their FULL homework on their top 20-25 teams and slacks off a little on the others, but Blue Ribbon got this right, very well done. and thanks for posting gee.

good read…how is mitch recovering?