Last season, the Charlotte 49ers were dead last in Conference USA in defense, allowing 79.9 points per game.
Their solution was to bring in an assistant from the nation’s top defensive team to run things.
Coach Mark Price was dismissed nine games into Charlotte’s 6-23 season and Ron Sanchez takes over for 2018-19. The associate head coach for the Virginia Cavaliers, Sanchez has been an assistant for Tony Bennett since 2003, first at Washington State, then in Charlottesville.
Sanchez’s relationship with the Bennett family actually goes back further than that. His wife, Tara, played for Bennett’s sister, Kathi, at Indiana, where Sanchez spent a year as a volunteer with the men’s program.
From there, he took a job with Dick Bennett, Tony and Kathi’s father, as Washington State’s director of basketball operations. When Dick retired and Tony took over, Sanchez was elevated to assistant coach.
Over the last decade and a half, he’s witnessed the development of Bennett’s pack line defense, which confounded the ACC last season as Virginia stormed to the conference’s regular season and tournament titles.
“For the last 15 years of my coaching career, Ron Sanchez has been by my side,” Bennett said. “He has been a huge part of all the successes on and off the court that I experienced, and he is like a brother to me. I couldn’t be more pleased to see him named the head coach at Charlotte. The ultimate compliment I can pay Ron is to say that he is the kind of coach that I want my son to play for. His mind for the game and his recruiting prowess speaks for itself.”
Make no mistake — Sanchez was brought in to install his defense.
“I think Mike (Hill, Charlotte’s athletic director) hired me to bring what Virginia had,” Sanchez said. “I would be doing him and the chancellor a disservice if I don’t provide that. If they wanted something else, they’d have gone to a different school and brought someone else in here.”
The defense relies on team play, as players not guarding the ball have to be ready to help and rotate over in case someone gets beat. As frustrating as it is to opponents, it’s equally tough to master and requires selflessness.
It’s early, but so far, the team has adapted to it.
“It’s actually a very simple defense to run,” center Jailan Haslem told the media after the team’s Basketball Madness event. “I like what it stands for. No one’s going to be stranded. No man is gonna be left behind. … No isolation ball.”
Haslem, a senior, is one of two returning starters from last season’s last-place CUSA team. Despite starting 28 of the team’s 29 games, he averaged just 4.9 points, eighth on the team. His 4.4 rebounds ranked fifth.
Scoring will be provided by senior guard Jon Davis, a preseason All-CUSA selection. Davis was sixth in the league in scoring at 17.6 points per game last year, and he increased his output to 20.3 — third in the conference — in league games.
The rest of the roster will be thin on experience. Andrien White, second on the team in points (15.0) and assists (1.2) and third in rebounds (4.8), transferred to Wake Forest. Ryan Murphy (6.7 points) also transferred, and, two weeks into preseason practice, Sanchez dismissed two other players — Najee Garvin (7.2 points, 5.0 rebounds) and Bryant Thomas (2.2 points, 2.5 rebounds) for not meeting expectations.
With Oklahoma transfer Jordan Shepherd sitting out the year, veteran Luka Vasic (3.8 and 2.6) expected to miss the year with a knee injury and freshman signee Tyler Bertram expected to redshirt, that leaves just 10 scholarship players for Sanchez this season.
Sophomore guard Jaylan McGill (2.6 points) and sophomore forward Milos Supica (6.1 and 4.9) will likely move from the bench into the starting lineup and be joined by a large group of freshmen that includes guards Cooper Robb, Malik Martin and Brandon Younger, as well as forward Dravon Mangum.
With a lack of depth and experience, the 49ers may have a long season in front of them, even with the expected step forward on defense.
“You can’t put a timetable on it,” Sanchez said. “Unfortunately, you can’t. If I gave you one, I’d be lying to you. The only thing we can do is focus on tomorrow. There’s some rough waters coming. This isn’t going to be smooth. Nothing happens overnight. We’re going to go through some troubled times.”
Still, there are reasons for optimism.
“I think he’s going to do some good things,” Bennett said. “It will take him time, but he’s a special one for sure.”