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Kerns helped Appalachian State escalate expectations in 2019-20

The Mountaineers were one of the most improved teams in mid-major basketball last season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 29 Appalachian State at NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In most years, the buzz around the sleepy mountain town of Boone, N.C., is talk about a football program that won three-straight national titles at the FCS level in the mid-2000s, and one that has been dominant on the gridiron since moving from the SoCon to the Sun Belt. The town has always ate, slept and breathed Appalachian State football.

There have been seasons when the Appalachian State faithful have showed up in numbers to see the Mountaineers hoop. There was the 2006-07 season, which saw the program win a program-record 25 games before suffering a heartbreaking loss to the Dontaye Draper-led College of Charleston club.

There was the 1999-2000 season when the Apps last made the NCAA Tournament, which was the final season at historic Varsity Gym. Then there was the 2009-10 season, as the Apps won 24 games made it to the semifinal game of the CIT before losing to Pacific.

Most of the seasons since the Holmes Convocation Center opened with a blowout loss to North Carolina commence the 2000-01 season have seemingly seen sparse crowds show up to see the Mountaineers play, and in most of those seasons, Appalachian has been mediocre at best.

That all seems to be changing now. Appalachian is in a high-level mid-major conference, and has matched that with hiring head coach Dustin Kerns last spring. A dedication has been made to win and win now by the administration, spearheaded by Director of Athletics Doug Gillin.

In his first season as the Mountaineers’ head coach, Kerns helped the program do something it hasn’t done since 2010-11 season: have a winning season. That was one of several “first since” milestones worthy of mention during Kerns’ first season on the mountain. The 18 wins by a first-year coach was the most at Appalachian Since 1942.

Major improvements occurred in nearly every statistical category, including the most important one, the wins category, where the Apps won seven more games than the 2018-19 season.

“I have to thank the administration for the dedication they have made in helping this basketball program since I was hired here last spring,” Kerns said, citing Director of Athletics Doug Gillin in particular. “There is a real desire to have not only a good basketball program in not only the Sun Belt, but nationally as well. And credit to the players for really buying in to what are trying to do here for Appalachian basketball.”

The Mountaineers saw a seven-win improvement during the 2019-20 season, and would have played in a postseason tournament — either the CBI or CIT — according to coach Kerns.

“We had received invitations to both the CBI and the CIT, so it would have been something pretty neat that doesn’t happen all that much around here,” Kerns said. “It would have been the fifth time Appalachian has ever played in 100 years of basketball that the program even played in the postseason.”

One of the biggest moments of the season was Appalachian State’s win over Charlotte. The Mountaineers got a huge 64-55 win over the 49ers, and it was evident that in the seventh game of the season, the buzz about Mountaineer basketball was returning.

With a narrow 6-5 lead over the 49ers, the Mountaineers surged to a 22-4 run to take a 28-9 lead and were never really threatened again until late in the game, when Charlotte cut the Mountaineer lead to six points with just under 40 seconds left. Fittingly, it would be an Adrian Delph steal that would seal the Mountaineers’ victory over its in-state rivals.

“The Charlotte game is the point in the season where I really thought we started to get it, especially on the defensive end,” Kerns said. “There was a stretch in that game where we went on a big run and played some of our best defensive basketball of the season.”

Appalachian would end up getting off to an 8-4 start, which was the best start for a Mountaineer basketball team since the 2006-07 season.

The win over Charlotte created a buzz about Appalachian State basketball — somethingit hasn’t really had since Buzz Peterson led the Mountaineers to the Southern Conference championship game in 2010.

It’s no secret that the reason for such improvement by the Mountaineers this season had everything to do with how the Apps defended. Defense always travels, and it’s not a coincidence that the seven win improvement had much to do with the seven true road wins by the Apps, which was the most in a decade.

After finishing ranked 11th overall in the Sun Belt in scoring defense in the 2018-19 season, the Mountaineers responded to the challenge to the defend first mantra of Kerns, which resulted in the Mountaineers moving up nine spots in that same statistical category to rank second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense in 2019-20. It’s no secret that giving up 67.3 PPG, as opposed to 79.3 PPG, will lead to winning more games.

Another thing Kerns did was challenge his team in the non-conference, as the Mountaineers opened the season with a hard-fought loss at Michigan, and also played games at North Carolina State, at UNC Greensboro and at 30-win East Tennessee State.

The Mountaineers played in what was the 13th ranked conference out of 32 NCAA Division I basketball conferences this past season, and as coach Kerns called it, a “mini SEC” and rightfully so. There’s talent in the Sun Belt, with teams like Georgia Southern, Arkansas Little-Rock and Louisiana Lafayette.

The Mountaineers finished with an 11-9 record in league play was good enough for a fifth-place finish in the league standings, which is also the highest finish the Mountaineers have recorded since joining the conference. In the Coronavirus-shortened Sun Belt Tournament, the Mountaineers defeated Coastal Carolina 70-65 in the opening round before bowing out of the tournament with a three-point loss at Texas State in the Sun Belt quarterfinals.

One of the standout wins for the Mountaineers in conference play came against arch-rival Georgia Southern, with one of the win coming in dramatic fashion. In the 74-72 win over the Eagles, a Justin Forrest three-pointer with one second remaining gave the Mountaineers a thrilling win.

Justin Forrest was a first-team All-Sun Belt, and that’s the first first-team All-Sun Belt player App State has had,” Kerns said. “I thought he had his best season of his career. You know he had the most points, rebounds, assists, steals and so he had a good season in all phases. We’re excited about having him return.”

Evidence that excitement had truly returned to Appalachian State basketball came on Senior Day when Appalachian State drew its largest crowd of the season against Coastal Carolina, which the Mountaineers beat 84-77. Still, the major takeaway and positive for the game was a boisterous crowd of 3,027 was on hand to see the Mountaineers battle the Chanticleers.

Kerns also acknowledged how much his senior class meant to the 2019-20 season, and how O’Showen Williams, Isaac Johnson, and Hunter Seacat were a big reason the Mountaineers were able to make such a turnaround in 2019-20.

“It’s a credit to them and it’s the kind of high-character kids they are,” Kerns said. “I think individually each of them had their best seasons they’ve had this past season of their whole career here both as a team and individually. That just comes down to them being high-character people and really buying in to what we were trying to do.”

The sleepy mountain town of Boone is woke to Mountaineer basketball once again, and the Black and Gold didn’t just take the stairs this season. They were on an escalator. With three starters back, prospects for the 2020-21 season are exceedingly bright.