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Mike Morrell’s rebuilding project takes another step at UNC Asheville

The Bulldogs went 10-10 last year, but Morrell is hopeful that this is the year they take the next step.

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

Mike Morrell is in year four of a rebuild at UNC Asheville. Some coaches might regard a 10-10 season in year three as a disappointment, particularly when the team was picked to finish second in the conference. However, when you put the season in perspective, that view may change.

The season took a downward turn at the end of January, right after a monumental 57-55 win at previously unbeaten Winthrop. That ended up being Morrell’s final game of the season, as he contracted COVID-19 shortly after and the team shut down for all of February.

The Bulldogs played just one more game that season — a 16-point loss to Longwood in the Big South Tournament quarterfinals.

Navigating the portal

Transfers are brought in like line changes in hockey at some places, but at Asheville, Morrell is looking solely for fit — on and off the court. He just needs to keep other schools from poaching his guys.

The Bulldogs fought this during the days of Morrell’s predecessor, Nic McDevitt, who had guys like MaCio Teague (Baylor), Andrew Rowsey (Marquette), Dwayne Sutton (Arizona), and Dylan Smith (Arizona) all leave for the supposed greener pastures for a major conference. It’s part of the struggle for any mid-major program to maintain a championship-caliber team over several years.

“We have to have a good feel for the guys before we take them into our program,” Morrell said. “We understand the process and they have to fit in as students and character-wise first, then how they will mesh with our team balance and our team personality collectively.”

There was little hesitation for bringing in guys like 6’11 Drew Pember from Tennessee, 5’10 lightning quick Quay Kimble from Lees-McRae, and Jordan Hairston from Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. Hairston averaged nearly 13 points per game for the Islanders before a 2020-21 season beset by injuries.

Pember is a skilled post with the ability to create matchup problems. Kimble is quick and can create off the dribble, which could offer opponents yet another pesky player to deal with. Morrell says he’s also a great shooter.

“The best thing about [Pember] coming here is that he and [Trent Stephney] are best friends and they won a state championship together in high school,” Morrell said. “There’s no better reason to take a transfer than that alone.”

Returning talent

Stephney (9.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 62 assists, 28 steals), L.J. Thorpe (11.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Taijon Jones (15.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 68 three-pt FGs) will all play key roles in the Bulldogs’ hopes of cutting down the nets as Big South champions in March. Throw in Jamon “Doc” Battle (8.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and Evan Claiborne (7.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 33 blks), and the Bulldogs have a complete unit.

Jones was one of the top perimeter threats in college basketball last season, knocking down 68 triples, and was recently named as one of the Top 10 three-point shooters entering the 2021-22 season, according to college basketball analyst Andy Katz. He returns as the active leader in three-pointers made in the Big South and hit 42.8% of his threes last year on eight attempts per game. Contrast what he did as a redshirt junior to what he did as a freshman, when he connected on just 27.8% of his shots from long range.

As is the case with any team with championship aspirations, it’s as much about the players that fly under the radar as it is about the one that have are the known stars.

Glue guys

Players like Stephney, Claiborne, Jude and Battle have their own unique roles to play, which is not at all lost on Morrell. For Battle, it’s his work on defense that makes him such a valuable commodity.

For Stephney, his quickness, ability to create, and his timely perimeter shooting will all play a big part in the success Asheville hopes to have in 2021-22.

“[Battle and Stephney] are as important as any two guys we have,” he said. “Trent’s really the leader of our program and he’s just a guy that exemplifies everything that’s about team. Doc and Trent take a backseat to nobody in terms of the importance of what they bring.”

It even goes beyond those two. Coty Jude is also a big part of the puzzle. A guy who has worked his way to where he is and is one of the most efficient three-point shooters the Bulldogs have will conclude his career as both one of the top percentage three-point shooters in program history, as well as career made three-pointers leader as a 6’9 forward. His lone Division I offer came from Morrell’s predecessor, Nic McDevitt, and after a year of prep school, Morrell stuck with McDevitt’s original vision for him. It has paid off.

A basketball culture

Morrell’s excitement is palpable. He exudes the type of confidence you see from a coach that knows he has the right mix of talent. A lot of it has to do with how he’s wired. Morrell finds a bright side anywhere it can be found — even in a pandemic.

But it’s not just Morrell. He’s had help from his administration. It helped him put on the “Celebration on the Court” event held earlier this month, which featured keynote speaker Jay Bilas and emcee Debbie Antonelli. The event helped jumpstart the season for a community in Asheville that has embraced the program and sport as whole. Remember, the Maui Invitational was actually held in Asheville last year.

“We’ve built this thing over each year and we’ve gotten better each year and I think the people who have supported us here are as excited as ever about the team we have,” Morrell said. “You can’t just do that as a coach. You have to have the support from your administration and your athletic director who are really the people responsible for helping you build the program. It’s a big deal as a program. It’s a big deal to this community.”