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Mike Morrell and the young UNC Asheville Bulldogs want to outdo preseason expectations

Led by one of Division I’s youngest coaches, UNC Asheville’s sophomore-filled roster will get older and wiser this season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 31 UNC Asheville at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — UNC Asheville head coach Mike Morrell has put his first season as a Division I basketball head coach behind him in some ways, but in others, he hasn’t.

“It’s not an easy thing to be a head coach at this level, or at any level, for the first time,” Morrell, the second-year head coach, said at the Big South media day earlier in the preseason.

Though just 37 years old, Morrell is wise beyond his years as a basketball coach.

And he has to be.

UNC Asheville will be one of the youngest teams in college basketball this season. Nearly 80% of Asheville’s minutes came from freshmen a year ago — five sophomores started in the season opener against Tennessee. Purdue Fort Wayne transfer Jax Levitch will be one of the most mature and experienced players on the roster, despite only being a redshirt junior. Everyone — from the man in charge to the end of the bench Bulldogs — will be older and wiser after this season.

At Asheville’s media day last week, the 37-year old head coach was candid when talking about what he learned from last year’s 4-27 season. Morrell was quick to mention the fact that having other coaches to lean on throughout the season was a luxury when things didn’t go so well during his first year on the job.

“I am really fortunate [to have] guys like Bob Richey at Furman and Jamion Christian at George Washington and Jeremy Ballard at Florida International,” Morrell said. “Those are guys that have been head coaches fairly recently, and those are guys that I can lean on — and you know coach [Shaka] Smart is always going to be my mentor. For me to have the ability to bounce stuff off people that have been there, that’s invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

But despite being one of the younger head coaches in the sport, Morrell is used to success at each stop of his career. After starting as an assistant at Charleston Southern (coincidentally, with Furman head coach Bob Richey), Morrell was on Shaka Smart’s staff during VCU’s Final Four run in 2011, which kickstarted a four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before Smart brought Morrell to Texas for the 2015-16 season. Prior to last season, Morrell had been to nine NCAA Tournaments in his 11 years as an assistant coach.

“That’s a pretty good percentage of going to the NCAA Tournament — not because of me but because of you know the programs I was involved with and players that we had,” Morrell said. “When you come here and it’s completely the opposite of that, you question yourself a little bit. There are some tough days, and days that I have got up and had to question myself going through a season like we had last season. And knowing that I am not the only one to have had to endure these kinds of days as a young head coach helps me a lot.”

Last week, Morrell’s Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth in the conference at the Big South media day. However, he admitted to Asheville’s support staff, media and fans in attendance that this season felt different even though the Bulldogs had been picked ninth.

He cited that his team will have a bit of a chip on its shoulder because of these polls — especially after how the Bulldogs closed out the season last year. In the final 11 games of the regular-season, the Bulldogs were involved in seven decided by 10 points or fewer, including a one-point overtime loss at NCAA Tournament-bound Gardner-Webb.

This year, they will be led by preseason first-team All Big South selection Devon Baker (16.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG), plus sophomores like L.J. Thorpe (8.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG), Tajion Jones (10.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG) and Coty Jude (8.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG). They’ll be joined by the aforementioned Levitch, NC State transfer Lavar Batts and athletic freshman guard Jamon “Doc” Battle out of Richmond, Va. — all of whom could pay immediate dividends for the Bulldogs in 2019-20.

Asheville used to be a fixture at the top or near the top of the Big South. The Bulldogs have won five Big South Tournament titles, been to nine tournament title games and made an NCAA Tournament appearance as recently as 2016. Two years ago, they took USC to double-overtime in the first round of the NIT. But Morrell acknowledges that even with the pedigree and backing UNC Asheville has, bringing the program to the top will take time.

“This is a storied tradition and it’s a proud tradition, but also it’s going to take some time,” Morrell said. “But when you see other guys like Bob [Richey], for instance, who has had some success in four or five years [at Furman], it gives you some confidence on what we can do here.”

UNC Asheville travels to The Citadel this Saturday, Nov. 9, then plays at Wake Forest the following Wednesday. The Bulldogs’ home opener is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 16 against Brevard College.