As the calendar flips to October, the college basketball season is just over a month away and preseason rankings have started trickling out. With a season now under his belt, Coach Mark Price looks to inch his Charlotte 49ers from the middle of the pack in C-USA towards the top of the standings after a 9-9 campaign last season. If you ask the coaches and media though, the only way for the Niners to go is down. The C-USA Coaches Poll (8th), Athlon (10th), Lindy’s (10th), Sporting News (9th) all predict Charlotte to sink in the standings from a 7th place position last year.
At a quick glance in a vacuum it might be easy to say Charlotte could regress some. Rice and Western Kentucky will both have considerably upgraded rosters, center Joseph Uchebo was lost to graduation, as well as a key contributor in Curran Scott. Anybody can pick any team and find a reason for another team to take a step backwards, and collectively everyone has chosen Charlotte to be that team. Anybody can pick any team and find reasons for a team to take steps forward, and mental gymnastics are not remotely necessary to make that case for the Niners.
The Uchebo Void
It’s undeniable that there will be a significant drop-off in the low post. Benas Griciunas struggled to get on the court last season in spite of blatant intentions to keep Uchebo’s minutes limited due to knee troubles. Big Joe’s rebounding prowess placed him 27th in Offensive Rebound % and 3rd in Defensive Rebound % nationally. Opponents made 52.7% of their two-point attempts last season against Charlotte, and when they missed Uchebo was there to clean up the boards. But this is not last year’s team. Additions to the roster at other frontcourt positions will improve the defense in ways experience and coaching can’t. Charlotte will no longer be leaning on 6’4″ Anthony Vanhook to defend power forwards and centers. The additions of Austin Ajukwa (6’6″), Najee Garvin (6’7″), Hudson Price (6’7″) & J.C. Washington (6’7″) will compliment and help our 7-footers, Benas Griciunas and Lukas Bergang, in ways the Uchebo never benefited from last year. The opposition will have a more difficult time getting the ball into the paint through our length at forward, forcing more missed shots and more opportunities for rebounds. Building a wall to the paint will also allow our guards to stay in position and defend the perimeter with greater effectiveness.
Two teams that found themselves behind Charlotte in the 2016 standings will have considerably upgraded rosters going into the season. Western Kentucky, with new head coach Rick Stansbury, will field an army of 5th-year transfers for the Hilltoppers in his transition season, and has began assembling a Top 10 recruiting class for 2017. Rice’s key addition is Chad Lott, a highly touted recruit a year ago lost in the preseason injury, combined with returning C-USA Freshman of the Year Marcus Evans. The Owls are also bringing in at least three freshman that are Top 100 players at their position. It’s reasonable to see these two teams making leaps from last year, and perhaps even passing the Niners. In fact, after a dismal campaign last year overall for C-USA, there is a fighting chance the conference can produce it’s first at-large bid since taking its current form in 2013. But it is hard not to look at several teams ahead of Charlotte and see teams weakened by departures.
The top two teams from a year ago, travel partners UAB & Middle Tennessee each lose just one senior that had a usage percentage greater than 20.0. The biggest question mark from these two teams is whether or not UAB’s new coach Robert Eshan can maintain the level of competition established by Jerod Haase before departing for Stanford. It’s fair to say that the Conference USA Champion will have to go through these teams to get to the top. But a look at last years 3rd-6th teams and there are black holes created by departures which won’t be easy to recover from.
Old Dominion loses Trey Freeman, who boasted a usage percentage of 32.2 (11th Nationally) and hoisted 38.8% of the Monarch’s field goal attempts (1st Nationally). Freeman’s departure along with other seniors leave Old Dominion with returning players that converted just 25.5% of Three-Point Field Goal Attempts a year ago. While Jeff Jones squad should be tough to score on, once again, they will struggle to keep up with other contenders on the score board.
Louisiana Tech and Marshall both lose contributors that had usage rates north of 26% in Alex Hamilton and James Kelly. The Bulldogs are actually losing three of their four most used players last year, while Marshall’s losses are limited after Kelly. Both of these teams will bring in recruits to fill in the minutes, but the gaps in the line-up are far harder to fill than for Charlotte. UTEP was just not very good at all last year, in spite of a 10-8 conference record. Of all the teams in the conference top 8 a year ago, UTEP held the lowest KenPom rating and over achieved their Pythagorean win expectation by 1.6 wins. Tim Floyd is losing his grasp on the Miners after under-achieving with talented teams for so many years, this may be the year the tailspin become unrecoverable.
Price Match Guarantee
Charlotte fans were treated to something new last season, a team that improved the quality of its play over the course of the season. Under five seasons of Alan Major, the Niners dropped an average of 41 places in the KenPom Rankings from the beginning of conference play to the end of the season. Charlotte hit rock bottom following the Campbell loss at home in December, sinking below 300, and had recovered nearly 30 places before the first C-USA game at 275th and ended the season with a rating of 193rd, a gain of 82 places.
With so many new faces on the roster, it may take a few games to reach peak efficiency for Charlotte. But the Niners won’t face the most challenging slate until the Thanksgiving Weekend clash with Davidson, so there is plenty of opportunity for the team to mesh without suffering a damaging loss. With a challenging December slate of Oregon State, Wake Forest, Florida and Maryland, the Niners will be very primed for C-USA competition when the conference season tips-off against North Texas.
Progression Towards The Mean
In predictive analytics it’s described how teams will eventually, over the course of time, win the percentage of games indicative of their quality. The problem is, a conference season of 18 games, which is not even a full round-robin schedule, is a small enough sample size to limit correction to random variance.
Considering the dismal start to Charlotte’s season, with embarrassing showings against Elon, Michigan, Davidson, Miami & Campbell, it is easy too look at a 9-9, .500 finish in Conference USA and say this was a Charlotte team that overachieved a year ago and will be brought back down to earth this season. But when you isolate the conference season by itself, a different story presents itself. Of Charlotte’s nine conference losses last year, just one was by more than 10 points. For Charlotte’s nine conference wins, the Niners were victors by double-digits in five of them. After running the numbers, adjusting for home and away (to account for imbalanced schedule), Charlotte under-performed its expected win total by two games. So when deciding whether or not Charlotte will have a better or worse 2017 C-USA campaign, keep in mind the Niners had the analytical profile of an 11-7 team a year ago.
While the Niners should take steps forward this season, and gain valuable experience for a team heavy with underclassmen, Charlotte may still be a year away from being in the at-large bid conversation. All but one of Charlotte’s projected Top 100, non-conference games will be taking place outside of Halton Arena which instantly create an uphill battle to building a resume. The path to the 2017 NCAA Tournament in all likelihood goes through the C-USA Tournament, where a Top 4 seed is vital to advancing to and winning the championship. If the Niners take the steps forward they are capable of, a Top 4 seed is within grasp.
State of Charlotte Standings Prediction
1: Middle Tennessee (15-3)
2: UAB (14-4)
3: Western Kentucky (13-5)
4: Charlotte (13-5)
5: Rice (12-6)
t-6: Louisiana Tech (10-8)
t-6: Marshall (10-8)
t-8: Old Dominion (8-10)
t-8: UTEP (8-10)
t-8: North Texas (8-10)
11: FIU (6-12)
t-12: Southern Miss (3-15)
t-12: Florida Atlantic (3-15)
t-12: UTSA (3-15)