While one group of Bulldogs has ascended to the top of the college basketball world, another has pushed its way to the top of the Big South.
As the second half of Big South play gets underway, UNC Asheville find itselfin first place, albeit tied with two other teams: preseason favorite Winthrop and Liberty.
How far can the Bulldogs go? A three-way tie for first this late in the year may seem like a precarious situation. But, the 8-2 Bulldogs (16-7 overall) have the inside track coming down the stretch.
UNC Asheville’s remaining schedule seems to work in its favor. The Bulldogs have already faced Winthrop and Liberty on the road, splitting the games with a win and a loss, respectively. This means that both of those teams still must travel to Asheville, where the Bulldogs should be favored to win.
UNC Asheville is 9-1 at home thus far, only dropping a non-conference contest against UNC Greensboro. That home court advantage against the conference’s top competition could be the difference in the season’s final weeks.
If the Bulldogs are going to slip up, it seems likely to occur on the road. Both of UNC Asheville’s conference losses have away from home, including a head-scratching overtime loss to Radford. Two their remaining road opponents are High Point and Gardner Webb. High Point currently sits fourth in the conference, but the Bulldogs blew them out by 30 when the two met in Asheville. Gardner Webb, on the other hand, took UNC Asheville to overtime when the two teams first clashed this season. That late season contest at Gardner Webb could be a struggle. But, given that they have defeated Liberty on the road and came within a basket of taking down Ohio State in Columbus, UNC Asheville is more than capable of handling its business away from home.
Assuming the Bulldogs take advantage of their favorable schedule down the stretch, they’ll need a win in the Big South tournament to make it to the big dance. If they can hold on to win the regular season crown, UNC Asheville would have to be considered the conference tournament favorite.
Besides their great record at home, where the conference tournament would be held if they win the regular season, the Bulldogs have shot exceptionally well; often the key in March. They’ve hit 41 percent of their three point attempts as a team and have gotten hotter during conference play, making 45 percent of their shots from distance.
The Bulldogs currently have four players shooting 45 percent or better from three including their two leading scorers, Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague. Thomas was a second-team all-conference selection in the preseason, but has played above expectations. He leads the Bulldogs in scoring, rebounding, and steals per game. Thomas also has shot 52 percent from the field, including 51 percent from three.
Teague has burst onto the scene as a freshman. He is second on the team in both scoring and rebounding and also leads the Bulldogs in minutes played.
UNC Asheville will rely on those two players to carry the offense in March. But, the Bulldogs defense will be just as important. Through conference play, they have the Big South’s most efficient defense according to KenPom, also lead in defensive turnover percentage as well.
While there is still a long way to go, UNC Asheville currently has the upper hand in the Big South. Should they make it to the NCAA Tournament in March, the Bulldogs will need some luck to pull of a win. But, with their deadly accurate three-point shooting and solid defense of late, they could create their own luck.