It was a bad week for the doubters, if any remain. Charlotte coach Mark Price continues, calm and assured, to silence critics and prove he was the right choice to rebuild the Niners.
Charlotte fought through a poor shooting night and an uncomfortable pace to defeat James Madison on Thursday.
“When you’re growing as a team, good teams find a way to win when you don’t play well,” Price said afterward. “You’re not going to play well every single night. Would we have won this game last year? Probably not. To me that’s growth, guys are maturing, we’ve been able to close out games."
Two nights later, the Niners overcame a four-points-in-10-minutes scoring stretch and rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to beat Oregon State, giving Price his first win over an opponent from a power conference.
Charlotte improved to 6-2 and equally important 5,866 fans watched inside Halton Arena, proving there's value in winning and luring to campus a Pac-12 program that played in last year's NCAA tournament.
The Niners used to be March Madness regulars. Between 1995 and 2005, three different coaches led them to the NCAA tournament eight time. In the decade since, there were moments when it appeared Charlotte was ascending. But when Price took over in March 2015 the program had hit rock bottom.
Just look at what Charlotte lost in the weeks before Price was hired: Torin Dorn transferred to N.C. State. He’s averaging 17.9 points and seven rebounds per game this season; Keyshawn Woods transferred to Wake Forest. He’s averaging 13.1 points and shooting 57 percent on 3-pointers; Mike Thorne, a 6-11, 270-pound center transferred to Illinois.
Price entered with no experience as a head coach in college or the pros. The former Georgia Tech All-American had spent the seven previous seasons as an NBA assistant, the last two across town with the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets.
Price hired three assistants who have strong recruiting ties in the Southeast and they went to work assembling a roster.
With a guard-heavy, undersized squad last season, Price focused on building an efficient offense. After a 1-8 start against a treacherous schedule, the Niners finished 14-17 overall and 9-9 in Conference USA.
This season, the Niners are still small and play fast. They typically have four guards spread around the perimeter. Jon Davis, a 6-2 sophomore, is emerging as one of the best in CUSA. He’s averaging 20.2 ppg on 55 percent 3-point shooting while playing more than 35 minutes per game. Poised and confident, possessing a sweet stroke,
Davis plays a game his coach must recognize.
Davis and his teammates have also embraced Price’s challenge to improve on the defensive end. Their current three-game winning streak proves those lessons are taking hold. Charlotte held each opponent to less than one point per possession. The Niners' adjusted defensive efficiency has improved from 107.3 last season to 104.2 this season, per KenPom.com
“Honestly I believe defense is an effort thing,” Davis said after the JMU game. “You have to have five guys on the floor who want to play defense.”
Charlotte offsets its lack of size by creating extra opportunities. The Niners make 7.1 steals per game. They are top 10 in the nation in turnover rate, coughing up
the ball on 14.1 percent of possessions and have a 5.1 turnover margin, which is 19th in the nation.
Help is also on the way.
Austin Ajukwa, an athletic 6-7 forward, becomes eligible on Dec. 17th when the Niners face nationally ranked Florida. Ajukwa played in 55 games in two seasons at Clemson and should thrive in the Niners up-tempo attack.
Charlotte is probably a year away from contending for the CUSA crown. But with only two seniors on the roster and promising freshmen Quentin Jackson and Najee Garvin starting to bloom, there’s ample room for growth.
Trust is building, Price said, between the coach and his team and between the players on the floor.
Charlotte has been sharp on 3-pointers (39.2 percent) and free throws (77 percent), which should surprise no one who watched Price play. Still, a shooter's mentality believes even hotter nights lie ahead.
“The more games we play, we still have a lot of new guys, young guys, it’s still a process of finding that groove and finding that rotation,” he said. “We still haven’t shot the ball as well as we’re capable, not worried about, we’ll work on it.”
A year ago, as the losses mounted early Price stayed positive and committed to the process of building a team, building a program. He loved the way his players continued to fight despite the deficit. And, while it was the first time he’d been in this spot as a head coach, he had experience to draw upon. In Price’s first two seasons as a college player, Georgia Tech won 31 games. In his last two seasons, the Yellow Jackets won 54 games and an ACC championship.
The path to the top remains the same now as it was then. Develop the current players, add talented pieces to fill the holes. There’s a tough three-game stretch ahead against Wake, Maryland and Florida, but viewed through the lens of a massive rebuilding effort, Price has the Niners on the right path, moving forward.