When tryouts for the USA young men's team began in July, Curtis Withers arrived in the shadows of such stars as North Carolina's Sean May and Wake Forest's Chris Paul. For those who had seen Withers play, his relatively low profile was puzzling: As a sophomore last season Charlotte's 6'8", 230pound forward had led Conference USA with 16 double doubles, the fourth-highest total nationally. But national team and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson was one of those who had not seen Withers with the 49ers. "Because I was around a lot of big names, I kind of felt like I had to make my presence felt," says Withers. "I was on a mission to go extra hard."
Mission accomplished. Withers not only made the national team but also started all four tournament games. In the final against Puerto Rico he scored 17 points to help the U.S. to a 97--86 win and the gold medal. A month after showing up at tryouts unheralded, Withers had Sampson issuing raves. "I call him Little Ben," Sampson says, likening Withers to Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace. "He is relentless, tough and pursues every rebound with a passion. He's a coach's dream." The similarities between the two players do not end with their style of play. When Withers removes his headband after games, he displays a Wallace-like thicket of hair.
A lack of recognition is something that plagues the Charlotte team as a whole. The 49ers have received little national exposure for a school that has made six NCAA tournament appearances in the past eight seasons (second-most in the conference to Cincinnati's eight). That's partly because they did not advance past the second round over that span. Thus, in an effort to add quality depth to the roster, coach Bobby Lutz brought in 6'8" forward E.J. Drayton, a transfer from Colby (Kans.) Community College (and a Charlotte native) who should get major minutes as a sixth man. "He's so versatile," says Lutz. "He can really score, shoot the three and play well inside."
Withers even sees a Pistons-like chemistry forming on the 49ers. "Basically, every player does one thing well," he says. "It's a really good team." Best of all, they have a standout who really knows what it takes to play with the big boys. "This summer, there was a lot to gain and a lot to lose," Withers says of his experience with the national team. "And I'm not willing to lose in any aspect." --Julia Morrill
2003-04 RECORD: 21-9 (T1 in C-USA)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to Texas Tech in 1st round