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DeVon Baker and Coty Jude have been at the forefront of the turnaround for UNC Asheville

Could the leadership of Jude and Baker lead Mike Morrell’s Bulldogs back to Big South prominence in 2020-21?

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

UNC Asheville’s 11-win improvement from 2019 to 2020 was about continuity, confidence and enthusiasm. Those three attributes can be found in the young team’s two leaders, junior Coty Jude and sophomore DeVon Baker. They led a 4-27 team two years ago to a 15-16 record this past season, with potential for more in 2021.

“The transition Devon has made from his freshman year to sophomore year in terms of his efficiency was outstanding,” head coach Mike Morrell said. “His shooting percentages inside and beyond the arc were way up and the ability to get him off the ball more as a sophomore really helped his growth as a scorer.”

Baker is the star. It’s always a safe bet that he will do something special when you watch him play. Take for example the game the 6’2, 190-pound guard had against UT-Martin last season, in which he scored 37 points on 15-of-21 shooting from the field.

“To have a game like that is all really about confidence and just play with not too much pressure on you,” Baker said. “For me, it’s all about just playing and having fun and having confidence.”

It was a simple enough answer from Baker, yet that mentality was seemingly the heart and soul of what UNC Asheville basketball was about during the 2019-20 season.

It’s not easy for a traditional conference power to regain swagger or confidence when it suddenly starts losing. But sometimes it comes down to the character and motivational leaders you have on your squad — more so than talent alone.

The “want to” was there from guys like Baker and Jude, and they went into the 2019 offseason anxious to improve their respective games. Their roads to the Blue Ridge Mountains have set them up perfectly for a big season ahead.

Baker first planned on playing for Siena, committing to the Saints under Jimmy Patsos. After Patsos was fired, Baker’s first visit was UNC Asheville, where he fell in love with the campus and coach Mike Morrell’s coaching style. Baker ended up being his first recruit at UNC Asheville and he became the centerpiece of Morrell’s rebuilding project.

“Style of play was a big factor,” Baker said. “I love to run and get up the floor, as well as play that pressure style defense. I think it helps that we have all been young and have been able to learn how to win together.”

Baker ended up having a solid first season at Asheville, garnering Big South All-Freshman honors and averaging 16.1 points per game — a league best for rookies.

He followed that up with quite the sophomore season, averaging 16.5 points and leading the team with 27 double-digit scoring games. That was good enough to land him on the Big South Second Team, and could potentially make him a preseason Player of the Year candidate heading into 2020-21.

Jude took the path less traveled when he came to UNC Asheville. He didn’t get many serious D-I looks, but he was originally recruited by former UNC Asheville coach Nic McDevitt. However, when McDevitt left to become the head coach at Middle Tennessee State, Jude was wondering again what his fate might be as a player. He eventually landed in prep school at Believe Sports Academy — a step that he feels was critical for his development.

“Morrell and I kind of crossed paths and at that point I was doing just what I had to do to get that opportunity and that’s all I cared about,” Jude said. “At the time I didn’t know a lot about the Xs and Os of basketball and all I really cared about was the opportunity so I was extremely grateful for Morrell giving me that and allowing me to come in and letting me play the way that I thought I could play at the time.”

“Coty has made tremendous growth as a basketball player since arriving here,” Morrell added. “His sophomore year he started to find multiple ways to impact the game in terms of winning, instead of just being a really good shooter. The offseason has been really good for him from a physical growth standpoint, as he has put on 10 pounds, which will help his stability on the floor.”

Jude grew up in Fort Gay, West Virginia where he developed his love for the game. Picture Jimmy Chitwood in the movie Hoosiers shooting out on a goal with a wooden backboard, and you might get a better understanding of how Jude became such a prolific outside shooter for the Bulldogs. It was less a Hollywood set and more reality though for Jude, who admits from a young age he had an affinity for shooting the three.

“It was always one of the better parts of my game as a player,” he said. “As I got older and I continued to grow, I never lost the touch or the range to shoot the outside shot.”

That was most evident during Jude’s sophomore campaign, as he was essential in helping the turnaround for the Bulldogs. The 6’9 forward finished fourth overall in the Big South in three-pointers made, knocking down 72 triples, and his 37.7 percent shooting clip ranked him second in the conference.

Jude returns for the 2020-21 season with the eighth-most three-pointers made in program history with two years of eligibility remaining. He’s also a 40 percent career shooter from deep, putting him in striking distance of the program record.

“If he doesn’t hold both records by the time he graduates, then I am not doing my job,” Morrell said.

For now, though, the focus is on one thing: a Big South championship in 2020-21.