Charlotte has been one of the more underrated mid-major programs of the last 40 years in college basketball. In a 29 year span from 1977 through 2005, the 49ers made it to the NCAA Tournament. They made the Final Four in 1977 in only the 12th season of the basketball program's existence. The Niners also had a stretch just over ten years ago where they won a NCAA Tournament game in four out of five seasons. Very few mid-major basketball programs have reached such accomplishments. But Charlotte does not have a statewide following like the schools above the Red Line in North Carolina do. Within their own metro area they have to compete with local pro teams and the ACC schools a couple hours away, as well as other mid-majors in the area (most notably Davidson). Charlotte has a plan however to try to achieve greater name recognition in college sports. And that plan does not involve Our Game.
Charlotte's opponent here was Lamar University from Beaumont, Texas, about halfway between Houston and the Louisiana state line. Lamar dropped football in 1990 and basketball would become the primary sport for the Cardinals. Lamar had achieved moderate success in the Southland in basketball, winning the Southland in 2000. The Cardinals would also win the Southland regular season title in 2008. While football gets most of the attention in Texas, East Texas is quietly a hoops hotbed as well. Lamar had a very good mid-major program the late 1970s and early 1980s, and built a 10,000 seat arena. Lamar's results were mixed, but they were a rare Texas school that seemed to put most of its emphasis on basketball. But that has now changed as Lamar two years ago brought back football. The Lamar football team has struggled in its opening years, while the Cardinal basketball team still continues to have mixed results. Lamar brought in recently fired Texas Tech coach Pat Knight (son of legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight) who quickly got the Cardinals back to the NCAA Tournament last year, losing to Vermont in Dayton. Lamar still has a solid basketball team with god fan support, but it remains to be seen how American-style football will influence the basketball team going forward.
Charlotte has never had football. But as you can see from the picture at the top of the recently completed stadium on campus, that will change very soon. The clock on the Charlotte home page is counting down
to August 31, 2013, when the new UNCC football team will play a non-scholarship team from Campbell. The general view from Charlotte fans when looking at their message board is that football will dig them out from being a less well-known school. Charlotte had been a moderately successful team in a Conference USA that included current Big East schools Louisville, Marquette, and Cincinnati. The basketball schools aside from Memphis left C-USA in the mid-2000s, with Charlotte and St. Louis both joining the Atlantic 10. But despite the Atlantic 10 being lower competition than the once strong Conference USA, Charlotte has not returned to prominence in mid-major basketball. But with the Atlantic 10 adding Butler and VCU, the Atlantic 10 has potential to become a mid-major super conference that the Charlotte basketball team can grow in. But that won't be what they will end up doing now that there is a football team moving in across campus. Instead, Charlotte will instead return next year to a more football-focused Conference USA. It is possible that Charlotte basketball can achieve success in C-USA again. But they will be leaving their roots and will instead most likely become a football-first school like too many in Division I right now. At the souvenir stand tonight, 49er football merchandise was more prominent than basketball merchandise. The challenge Charlotte has is not related to not having had football, but rather being a campus largely of urban commuters. Many UNCC students are not deeply attached to the 49ers. But similar schools elsewhere have overcome that problem with a great basketball team such as at George Mason and VCU. But few urban commuter schools have had the same success with football. But one thing is certain: their future success will be separate from Our Game. Conference USA is above the Red Line, and after this year the 49ers will no longer be one of the teams covered on TMM.
The game I was at previously was the Winthrop-VCU game
where I did not get out of the parking lot until 4:10 PM. This game against Lamar at UNCC was to be preceded by a women's game between Charlotte and Florida Gulf Coast of the Atlantic Sun. That game started at 5 PM, and it takes 45 minutes to get from Winthrop in Rock Hill to UNCC on the northeastern edge of Charlotte. By the time I would arrive it would be 4:55, meaning that I would have five minutes to park, walk to the arena, and buy a ticket and head in before the women's game started. We generally do not cover women's games on here, but I count them for my own statistical purposes. But I decided not to do so given the time constraints getting out of Rock Hill and instead got dinner across the street from campus at Jersey Mike's. Once I ate and then headed on in, there were five minutes left in the first half of the women's game with Charlotte up by about 15. FGCU never got within single digits after that and Charlotte won by 19. That is why I always make it a point to arrive by tip time since the important plays that determine the course of the game are often early on. I did see over half the game, but not the more hotly contested part if there ever was one. I might consider counting a game where unforeseen circumstances caused me to miss a few minutes (like the traffic jam that caused my student bus trip to not make it to High Point's 2007 Big South semifinal game until at the first media timeout), but not for a game that I was not that committed to seeing anyway.
But I was of course in plenty of time for the men's game which was all I was really concerned with anyway. With about five minutes left in the women's game, I returned to my upper deck seat since I could see they would be clearing the lower deck immediately afterwards. They even forced the students to leave and re-enter, with many students leaving their seats marked by having their jackets left in them.
But the men's game did not turn out to be any better than the women's game that preceded it. I thought that Lamar still had enough left from last year's run that they could challenge the recently struggling 49ers. But this game did not turn out to test UNCC at all. A 17-2 run by the 49ers midway through the first half would give Charlotte all the cushion they needed in holding off the Cardinals.. There were times where Charlotte could not get their offense going and struggled to find points. But Lamar could not take care of the ball and could not shoot well when they did hold on to it. The Cardinals would finish with only 49 points on the game, which was played with a moderately paced tempo. Charlotte's 70-49 win gave the team momentum heading into Thanksgiving weekend at the Great Alaska Shootout, and the 49ers have showed early promise so far in being improved from Alan Major's previous teams that have struggled in the Atlantic 10.
The basketball team at Charlotte still could turn out okay. But future Conference USA rival East Carolina has long neglected hoops in favor of its football program. And it will take Charlotte a while before they can get a football team to be at the level of the established FBS teams they will face in Conference USA. But the successful Charlotte team that is in the biggest danger is their soccer team. Charlotte's soccer team made the national championship last season, and in a game I went to against South Carolina hundreds of students lined up to get a soccer scarf. But most southern schools with FBS football do not have any men's soccer team, including East Carolina which dropped its program six years ago. This game was part of the early season struggles Pat Knight has gone through in his second season at a more football-oriented Lamar. The hope is that American-style football will help Charlotte get more name recognition, which would help the whole university and its athletic programs. But if that does not work, the whole university could be financially drained as well as the 49ers take their teams away from Hoops Nation and above the Red Line. at CHARLOTTE 70, LAMAR 49
LAMAR 0-3 (0-0) -- R. Mitchell 7-15 0-0 14; D. Minor 1-10 4-4 6; S. Brown 3-8 0-2 6; A. Wilson 5-11 0-0 10; D. Minton 0-4 0-0 0; N. Acosta 2-5 3-6 7; K. Blanks 0-2 2-2 2; O. Ebomwonyi 0-1 0-0 0; M. Hancock 0-2 0-0 0; S. Norman 0-0 0-0 0; B. Curran 0-1 2-2 2; H. Webb 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 19-61 11-16 49.
CHARLOTTE 3-0 (0-0) -- P. Henry 0-3 0-0 0; T. Williams 5-14 0-0 10; D. Ingram 6-8 1-1 16; C. Braswell 4-11 1-2 9; W. Clayton 4-5 1-4 9; D. Clarke 2-3 4-6 8; D. Mayfield 5-8 2-3 12; J. Thompson 2-3 0-0 4; I. Benkovic 0-2 0-0 0; M. Thorne 1-3 0-0 2; E. Nickerson 0-3 0-0 0; I. Ivankovic 0-3 0-0 0; C. Lewis 0-2 0-0 0; L. Bradbury 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-68 9-16 70.
Three-point goals: LAM 0-10 (D. Minor 0-4; K. Blanks 0-1; B. Curran 0-1; M. Hancock 0-2; H. Webb 0-1; A. Wilson 0-1), CHAR 3-17 (C. Lewis 0-2; C. Braswell 0-1; D. Mayfield 0-1; E. Nickerson 0-1; T. Williams 0-4; P. Henry 0-1; I. Benkovic 0-2; D. Ingram 3-4; J. Thompson 0-1); Rebounds: LAM 45 (S. Brown 11), CHAR 37 (D. Clarke 7); Assists: LAM 9 (D. Minor 4), CHAR 15 (P. Henry 4); Total Fouls -- LAM 16, CHAR 16; Fouled Out: LAM-None; CHAR-None.