Remove the most talented player from a floundering team already decimated by injuries, and what do you get?
In Charlotte's case, a sudden revival almost nobody saw coming.
Since first-year coach Alan Major dismissed top scorer Shamari Spears three weeks ago for violating team rules, Charlotte has rallied from a 4-6 start to reel off four wins in a row entering Wednesday night's conference opener at Richmond. Bookending that streak is a one-point win over then-No. 7 Tennessee and a double-overtime come-from-behind victory at Georgia Tech.
"We struggled a little bit early, but I always felt good about what we had," Major said by phone this week. "I'm happy the guys have rallied around each other and supported each other. That's what being a team is all about."
Few teams have endured more adversity in the first two months of the season than Charlotte, which last made the NCAA tournament in 2005 and was projected to finish in the middle of the Atlantic 10 again this season. K.J. Sherrill and Charles Dewhurst suffered meniscus tears during the first week of practice and Spears and two other returners were suspended to start the season, contributing to a disappointing start that included losses to Gardner-Webb, East Carolina and Davidson.
The nadir appeared to come Dec. 14 when Major announced he was dismissing Spears from the team. The senior had previously indicated on his Twitter that he was having trouble adjusting to Major, saying once during the preseason that he missed Lutz and another time he was close to quitting the team.
Major still won't shed much light on exactly what led to Major's dismissal except to say that the decision was "difficult" and that he wants players who "represent the university in the right way." What he will talk about is how he has managed to keep the rest of the team positive and upbeat under unenviable circumstances.
"One thing we do a lot is we try to teach life lessons," Major said. "We just try to relate a lot of what happened to life and to developing toughness and bringing the right effort and those kinds of things. It's a little bit corny but it has worked for us."
Cheesy or not, the life lessons have helped the 49ers step up in Spears' absence the past few weeks.
Center Phil Jones had the game-winning layup with 7.4 seconds against Vols. Guard Javarris Barnett sank a game-clinching three in a one-point win over Mercer. And guard Derrio Green hit the game-tying and game-winning buckets against Wright State and scored 21 points in the win at Georgia Tech.
"Everyone in their own way has chipped in," Major said. "Different guys have had big scoring nights or made key plays to help us, and that's why we've turned it around."