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Bob Richey and Mike Morrell begin navigating an unpredictable season

UNC Asheville and Furman thankful to be back on the court again; but goals remain the same

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The start of college basketball season at every level had a much different look this year. For some mid-major programs, whose raucous home crowds have led to gaudy home records, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an equalizer.

In a season without fans in the Southern Conference and Big South, the titles will be determined through self discipline, connectivity, defense, and talent.

For Furman and UNC Asheville — two teams I can cover most easily due to proximity — both have realistic NCAA Tournament aspirations. They just have to get to March first. Pandemic or not, the goals haven’t changed for either, nor did the different precautions affect either.

Part of creating a culture worth anything in mid-major or high-major hoops is the ability to have that connection despite what’s going on around you — even in a pandemic. You have to create your own energy, and that’s exactly what was evident at both venues this week.

Furman’s coach Bob Richey went on to laud the medical personnel who got the team ready to even stage a game.

“I know a a lot of things will get plenty of press tonight, but y’all give our sports medicine and doctors some ink because they are the reason we can even play,” Richey said. “Elaine Baker has done an outstanding job with the testing and social distancing and making sure we were conducting ourselves with the masking at all times to be able to have this opportunity.”

Knowing that the entire season could be derailed at a moment’s notice, even games without fans are a blessing. The pandemic has provided some additional perspective for head coaches this season, which Richey and UNC Asheville’s Mike Morrell were happy to discuss.

“I don’t think I’ve been more excited about an opener, couldn’t sleep at all last night,” Richey said. “With everything that we’ve been through in the last nine months and to be able to play, I really don’t care if there’s anybody in the gym.”

“The season’s only been pushed back two weeks, but just the weight of the pandemic and uncertainty and it felt like it’s been a long time,” Furman junior Mike Bothwell added. “I’m just very appreciative and thankful that we got to play at all. It was good to play against somebody else other than ourselves.”

While some programs will appreciate the moments and the opportunity, other, less self-disciplined program’s will be caught in the mid-January grind. They will start to be reminded of the lack of fans and atmosphere, and the losses will linger longer than they should.

It’s easy to hit a wall in the middle of conference play, and this year it will test every team’s maturity a little more.

Furman took that perspective into their season opener, and despite not having a packed Timmons Arena, didn’t seem to mind, defeating Tusculum, 95-62.

It was a little different for UNC Asheville, which started its season with a multi-team-event. Asheville fell to UNC Wilmington on Friday (76-68) and Western Carolina (83-81, OT) on Saturday.

The Bulldogs return all five starters from last year’s 15-16 team, but were without two of them as both Devon Baker and Coty Jude were nursing injuries.

The intensity was there, particularly in the second game. A contested jump ball early in the contest between Western’s Mason Faulkner and Asheville’s Lavar Batts Jr. offered some early indications the rivalry was still alive and well with or without fans. Both teams played especially hungry, too, having come off losses a day earlier. It only added to the competitiveness of the matchup.

In many ways, an event like this to open the season is beneficial to all involved when these teams enter conference play.

Morrell’s club came into the season with high expectations, and rightfully so. Not only were the Bulldogs picked to finish second in the Big South, but it is a team that has matured over the years.

Despite missing its two most veteran starters, the Bulldogs adjusted, even coming back from as many as 20 points down to force overtime.

Despite the 0-2 start to the season, Morrell found plenty of positives to be gleaned from this tournament as the Bulldogs gear up for Big South play.

“This will be a great experience for our team as we go throughout the year, it was set up similarly to how the Big South schedule will be,” he said. “It also allowed us to get a look at our team given the fact we haven’t had any scrimmages or exhibition games so far. We saw a lot of our new guys and young guys really grow over a two day span and I’m really proud of their effort.”

If you haven’t seen the Big South schedule, they’re doing things a bit different than most leagues. It will be back-to-back games in the same venue.

For instance, the Bulldogs will be on the road at Winthrop on Feb. 18 and 19 to close out the conference schedule. The Bulldogs will open Big South play on Dec. 30 and 31st in Farmville, VA at Longwood. Similar to baseball, the Bulldogs will have four home series and five away series.

At least that’s how it’s set up. Like I said: It’s a season of unpredictability.