College basketball: Henry, Charlotte out to prove worth
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The young Charlotte 49ers are off to their best start in eight years and are out to prove they're worthy of an NCAA tournament bid.
The next two weeks could go a long way toward determining if they reach that goal. The 49ers (17-4, 5-2 Atlantic 10) begin a demanding four-game stretch Wednesday against conference foes Temple, VCU, No. 14 Butler and St. Louis.
"It's going to be like climbing the walls of Jericho," said third-year Coach Alan Major.
There's added concern with junior guard DeMario Mayfield, the team's leading scorer at 11.7 points per game, suspended indefinitely for a violation of academic policy.
But Major believes his team will be fine as long as it stays focused on the next game rather than the big picture.
"It's like the guy in jail and how he hunches over his plate with his elbows out to make sure nobody steals his food," Major said.
"You feel like if you look up even for a minute there's going to be a piece of steak missing. You have to have that type of focus and not worry about what's going on around you or else you get away from the task at hand."
Major didn't know what to expect coming into the season.
The 49ers were young and picked to finish 12th in an Atlantic 10 Conference that added Virginia Commonwealth and Butler, two teams that have made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament in recent years.
The 49ers start two freshmen and two sophomores.
But what the 49ers have lacked in experience they've made up for with depth and versatility.
Major has started several different lineups this season and the 49ers went 10 deep prior to Mayfield's suspension.
Major will be looking for sophomore guard Denzel Ingram and freshman guard Terrence Williams to help carry the scoring load and forward Chris Braswell, the team's lone senior starter, to take on an even bigger leadership role down the stretch with Mayfield out of the mix.
But everything will continue to run through sophomore point guard Pierria Henry, a good passer and defensive stalwart who ranks eighth in the nation in steals.
Henry was an All-State football selection at South Charleston, where he broke Randy Moss' school record for the longest touchdown reception in a championship game.
"This team worked hard in the offseason and it's starting to show," Henry said. "Right now we're handling business but it's not over yet."
Henry said the team is built on "heart and hustle."
Freshman forward Willie Clayton, who leads the team with 7.4 rebounds per game, said he sensed something special was on the verge of happening the first day he walked on campus and met his new teammates.
He said there was immediate chemistry.
He said that strengthened when the 49ers traveled to the Bahamas over the summer for an exhibition tournament and later went on to win the Great Alaska Shootout in November with wins over Texas State, Oral Roberts and Northeastern.
"Just being away like that, it made us really rely on each other more and gave us a chance to bond," Clayton said. "We've been pretty much inseparable."
Charlotte hasn't received any votes in the Associated Press poll, largely because of its schedule.
Fourteen of its wins have come against teams outside of the top 100 in the RPI rankings. However, the 49ers are a respectable 2-1 against teams ranked in the top 50 and 3-3 against teams in the top 100.
Their biggest wins have come against LaSalle, Xavier and Massachusetts. They've lost to Miami, Florida State, Richmond and George Washington.
Charlotte lost to North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and hasn't been back since.
"This is an exciting time for me, an exciting time for the school," Braswell said, joking that he wishes he were around next season to see the team's continued development.
Considering Major's rotation includes six underclassmen the future would be appear to be bright in Charlotte as they prepare for their move to Conference USA next year.
That's why Major doesn't want his youthful team putting more pressure on itself the next two weeks or to get downcast if they fail to reach the NCAA tournament.
"I don't want this team to feel ruined if that doesn't happen," Major said. "But do I think we have a chance? Yeah. Do we have a mountain to climb? Yeah, we sure do.
"But I want these guys to enjoy the challenge and see how good they can be. We'll measure ourselves in this upcoming stretch when it's over and see where that takes us."