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UNC Asheville takes another step forward under Mike Morrell

Asheville was one of the most improved teams in mid-major basketball this past season

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

Some time has passed now to digest the college basketball season and its abrupt end.

While we sit in limbo waiting for news to come in about...really anything, many coaches are taking this time to learn, get better and to reflect on the season that just past, with some having better memories than others.

For UNC Asheville head coach Mike Morrell, those memories of the 2019-20 campaign are trending toward the better side. That’s because in season two of the Morrell Era, the Bulldogs improved their record by 11 wins and finished four places higher in the Big South standings than in 2019.

There were plenty of ups and downs this season for UNCA (it went 15-16), but now with virtually all its key pieces returning, the 2020-21 season will be an opportunity for a step forward.

“I think it probably remains to be seen where we will be picked,” Morrell said. “However, you hope you recruit kids that automatically kind of play with a chip on their shoulders and that’s going to determine what kind of year we’re going to have, but I also don’t think we’ll be picked ninth in the preseason again either.”

“I know the first year we were here we were picked eighth out of 11 and we had nine newcomers and I was thinking I don’t think there is any way we can finish eighth, but I know this year being picked ninth…to myself I didn’t say this publicly but I felt really good about not finishing ninth in the league,” Morrell added.

The Bulldogs finished tied for fifth in the Big South standings with an 8-10 conference record. Asheville posted big wins in and out of conference, with many decided by 10 points or less.

One of the biggest wins for Morrell and the Bulldogs during non-conference play came against Charlotte.

On the road at Halton Arena, the Bulldogs were able to come away with an 83-75 victory, which gave them four wins by Dec. 3. They won four games all of 2018-19. It took a complete team effort, as all five Bulldog starters finished in double figures.

Following the big win over Charlotte, the Bulldogs suffered a gut-wrenching loss to mountain rival Western Carolina, 78-77. UNCA led for most of the game and took a 40-33 lead to the half after leading by as many as 14 points in the opening 20 minutes.

“That was a tough loss to endure honestly because I felt like we had that game where we wanted it,” Morrell said. “And coming off the Charlotte, that would have given two huge non-conference wins on the road against in-state teams and that would have been big, but it just goes to show you can’t have any let up in this sport and the margin for error is so so small. With the way we play, we always need to be in attack mode.”

Morrell’s Bulldogs also suffered tight losses to South Carolina State (L, 85-90) and Chattanooga (L, 64-68) in the non-conference. In the loss on the road at South Carolina State, Bulldog guard Lavar Batts, Jr. had one of the best nights of any individual player of the college basketball season when he went for 40 points on 14-of-17 shooting from the field, including 3-for-5 from three-point range. He was also 9-for-9 from the free throw line.

“Lavar is capable of exactly that kind of night,” Morrell said. “He really can be a game-changer for us and he has really come in and made an impact this season and continues to work hard to be an even better player, which is always rewarding to see.”

Batts wasn’t the only player who had a big scoring performance this season. Late in non-conference play, sophomore DeVon Baker posted a 37-point outing for the Bulldogs in a 91-72 win over UT-Martin. Baker’s career-high came on a night when he connected on 15-of-21 shots from the field and was a sizzling 6-for-7 from three-point range.

During conference play, there were plenty of highs and lows for the Bulldogs, and like any young team, there were times that the youth showed up late in games to Asheville’s detriment — its first four conference losses came by a total of eight points.

One of those early games was a game against High Point, which came in 0-3 in conference, but knocked off the Bulldogs in Kimmel Arena.

However, things got much better from there, and it started with a pair of wins over teams from Virginia — at Longwood and vs. Radford. The Highlanders were the preseason favorites to take the conference crown.

The 80-67 win was evidence of how much this Asheville team matured just within the season. The team should return its core in 2020-21, including Tajion Jones, Batts, Coty Jude and Baker.

Expect the Bulldogs to contend for the Big South title and an NCAA Tournament berth.