College hoops: Critical season for Lutz, 49ers
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz spoke confidently Monday about his improved front line, increased depth and determination to erase memories of the worst season of his career.
His athletic director expects that turnaround ó quickly.
Frustrated with the 49ers’ 11-20 record last season and the inability to match their Conference USA success in the Atlantic 10, Judy Rose indicated Lutz faces a “critical year” in 2009-10.
“We’ve had time to adjust to this league,” Rose said. “It’s time for us to step up and be one of the better teams.”
Shamari Spears, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Salisbury who played two seasons at Boston College, will be eligible this fall. He’ll be joined by another local standout in K.J. Sherrill, a 6-7 freshman out of West Rowan.Shamarr Bowden, a 6-3 guard who missed all of his freshman season with a broken kneecap, is healthy. Chris Braswell, a 6-8 power forward, is a highly regarded freshman.
They’ll have to step in quickly because Charlotte loses two key seniors from last season: top scorer Lamont Mack and top rebounder Charlie Coley.
“We sure will miss Lamont and Charlie, but I think we’re going to have more low-post scoring presence than we’ve had in a very, very long time,” Lutz said. “My goal has always been top four of the league, whatever league you’re in. … Despite last year, that’s going to be our goal this year. I think it’s realistic to think that we can make that happen.”
Restless fans ó and Rose ó are expecting it.
“We have what we need to be successful,” Rose said. “We had what we needed in Conference USA and look who we were competing against: Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, Marquette. What has changed is who we are playing against. But excuse me, Xavier, very good. Dayton, very good. Temple, very good. We need to be in that mix.”
While Rose said she hasn’t demanded Lutz reach a certain number of wins or other benchmarks, the coach is feeling pressure as he prepares for his 12th season at his alma mater.
Questions about Lutz’s future were supposedly answered in March of 2008, when he was given a new five-year contract after first being denied an extension. Then came last season’s injury-plagued disaster that included a 5-11 mark in the Atlantic 10 and dwindling home crowds. Charlotte went 0-8 in league road games and was bounced from the first-round of the conference tournament.
“Last year was the most difficult I’ve ever encountered at any level in terms of injuries and not having guys that we had counted on,” Lutz said by phone from a recruiting trip. “If we had stayed healthy I think things would have been a lot different. But people don’t want to hear that ó and I don’t blame them.”
Charlotte fans were used to being mentioned as one of the heavyweight teams of the old Conference USA. Lutz won the league tournament in two of his first three seasons and guided Charlotte to the NCAA tournament in five of his first seven years.
They haven’t been since, a streak that’s reached four years and has coincided with the 49ers’ move to the A10. The switch was a necessity after Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and DePaul bolted for the Big East and left Conference USA a football-dominated league.
Rose believes recruiting in the new league, featuring schools many in the South were unfamiliar with, hurt recruiting.
“That carried over because of the level of athlete that we ended up attracting was not the level it takes to be competitive in that league,” Rose said.
Charlotte finished second in the regular season in its Atlantic 10 debut in 2005-06 and made the NIT, but it has only one NIT appearance and two losing seasons since.
“When our fans complain about the A10, I say to them, ‘What have we done since we’ve been in the A10?’ We haven’t lived up to our billing,” Rose said. “Some of them are probably saying, ‘What happened to that Charlotte team we thought we were bringing in?’
“This past year we were 12th. That’s a far cry from being first, second or third almost every year we were in Conference USA. We don’t need to complain. Right now we’re part of the problem.”
Lutz is trying to change that.