If you know mid-major basketball, even as a casual fan, you probably know that UNC Asheville is a titan in the Big South, competing for conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances on a regular basis.
Last season was no different, as the Bulldogs won the regular season title and entered the league tournament — held in their own building — as the favorite. They were upset by Liberty in the semifinals, which meant that the Bulldogs would find themselves in the postseason, but not in the tournament they expected to be in. They accepted an invite to the NIT, where a hard-fought road loss to Southern Cal ended a 21-win season.
Despite heartbreaking setbacks in the conference tournament and NIT, the positives certainly out-weighed the negatives in 2017-18 for Asheville. Over their careers, the senior class, which consisted of guards Kevin Vannatta, Raekwon Miller and Ahmad Thomas, as well as forward Alec Wnuk managed 81 wins, three-straight postseason appearances and back-to-back regular-season titles.
Vannatta and Thomas were pillars of the program. Vannatta set the all-time school record with 4,165 minutes played, and Thomas finished as the only Big South player in the history of the league with over 1,500 points (1,626), 700 rebounds (705), 250 steals (251) and 250 assists (256). Both are out of eligibility, and Asheville was hit with a different blow when sophomore Macio Teague — the team’s leading scorer (16.3 PPG) — transferred to Baylor. Another underclassman, Jonathan Baehre, also decided to transfer, as he announced during late April he was headed to Clemson.
But personnel losses are not the only thing facing the Big South giant in 2018-19.
It wasn’t too long after the season that head coach Nick McDevitt decided to take a bigger job. McDevitt welcomed a new little girl and was hired as the new head coach at Middle Tennessee in a 24-hour period. The 38-year old had spent 17 years as a part of the Asheville basketball program, logging 10 as an assistant to the legendary Eddie Biedenbach, and seven as the head coach. As head coach, he owned an impressive 98-66 record, including 81 wins in his final four seasons.
McDevitt leaves some pretty big shoes to fill, however, the guy replacing him has known success each place he has been: Mike Morrell.
Who is Mike Morrell you might ask?
He first began his coaching career at NAIA King College in Bristol, Tenn., where he was a top assistant. He spent two years in that position, helping the Tornadoes win the Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament title in his final season on staff in 2006-07. He then spent three seasons as a graduate assistant and director of basketball operations at Clemson, before stints as an assistant coach at Charleston Southern, VCU and ultimately Texas, where he had been since 2015.
At 36, Morrell will be one of the youngest head coaches in the nation, and will roll out one of the youngest rosters in Division I, with an average age of just over 19 years old. Morrell is excited about taking over the tradition-rich program, and has admired the Asheville brand and tradition from afar.
“It’s been a great experience for me so far at Asheville, and Asheville’s always been a program I have admired having grown up a little an hour from here. It’s a great program with a lot of tradition especially within the last 20 years or so with Coach Biedenbach and Coach McDevit,” he said.
Morrell spent time under mentors like Barclay Radebaugh at Charleston Southern, Oliver Purnell at Clemson, but most recently, was influenced most by Shaka Smart at both VCU and Texas, serving as assistant and recruiting coordinator for Smart at both schools.
“I’m not him in any way shape or form, but obviously being around [Smart] and having known him for the past 13-14 years, but also working with him over the course of eight years has been a tremendous asset for me,” Morrell said.
Asheville’s identity will look like Smart’s hallmark brand: high-octane, pressing, chaotic basketball.
“We’re figuring that out every day, but we have a plan, but I want us to play fast on offense and push tempo, and really try to pressure people defensively, but also with a young team, you can’t be game in everything, so you have to pick a few things out and try to be really good at it,” he said. “So our effort, enthusiasm and our energy need to be things that no matter how a game is going for us at certain points, we can control, and we need to own the things that we can control.”
His first order of business was to hire a staff, and he went out and got some of the best available in the region, hiring Kyle Perry, R.J. Evans and Mike Moynihan. Perry was responsible for helping turn USC Upstate into an Atlantic Sun power in a short time, recruiting the school’s second all-time leading scorer and now-Denver Nuggett Torrey Craig, as well as Ty Greene, who helped the Spartans to the 2015 A-SUN title game.
Given the roster turnover, Morrell will have to bank on that recruiting acumen showing through. The top seven scorers are gone, and Morrell was candid in talking about the departures of Teague and Baehre to power five schools.
“I don’t know that you really replace guys like that but we had to replace a lot of guys,” he said.
Two of the players coming in that could make an impact in the very near future are Jax Levitch and Lavar Batts, Jr., who will give the Bulldogs in 2019-20 after transferring in from Fort Wayne and N.C. State, respectively.
As for 2018-19, the Bulldogs will be one of the youngest teams led by one of the youngest coaches. But given the program’s history and the style Morrell brings in, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Asheville yet again make noise in the Big South.