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UNC Asheville looks to repeat in Big South

The Bulldogs won 27 games last season and have multiple reasons to believe they can replicate that success

UNC-Asheville v UCLA
Drew Pember was the 2023 Big South Player of the Year and will return for the upcoming season.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

UNC Asheville won the Big South title last season and looks to have a repeat performance this season, which seems to be a strong possibility.

Last summer before UNC Asheville’s Big South championship and 27-8 season, head coach Mike Morrell told me how his team responds to the lofty expectations in front of them. While some coaches like to tamper down high expectations, his response was different.

“Not all noise is bad noise,” he said.

The team lived up to the hype by punching its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2016, but the journey wasn’t easy.

In his first year as head coach, Morrell’s Bulldogs lost 27 games and went 4-27. This season the team won 27 games.

This season saw several bumps. In a key conference battle between the Bulldogs and perennial Big South power Winthrop on Feb. 8, UNC Asheville led by as much as 31 points but nearly squandered it away and won by just seven.

Championships aren’t easy

The Big South title game was also a challenge as UNC Asheville battled against seventh-seeded Campbell, who was looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.

The Bulldogs trailed much of the game but eeked out a 77-73 win thanks in large part to Taijon Jones, UNCA’s most veteran player who decided to stick around when Morrell took the job in 2018.

Jones played all 40 minutes and posted 24 points, including hitting the shot to give the team the lead for good with 55 seconds left. He used one of his most efficient shooting performances as he went 9-for-14 from the field, which included a 5-for-9 effort from 3-point range.

“When you reflect back on the year and really the journey it has been and everything that went in to getting this program back to where it rightfully deserves to be, which is at the top of the league, you think about all the work,” Morrell said. “It was only the second time we’ve ever won the regular-season and won the tournament in the same year… From an individualistic standpoint, having a guy like Taijon Jones have the championship game that he had and also being the only player that was here with me and only person in the program that was here in that first year when we only won four games…that was really special.”

Jones and the Bulldogs found themselves with quite a mountain to climb with just under eight minutes remaining as they trailed the Camels by 14 points, the Bulldogs’ largest deficit of the tournament.

The Bulldogs went about the rest of the game with the maturity of a team that was hungry for a championship, particularly after falling in heartbreaking fashion 79-78 at the buzzer to Charleston Southern in 2022.

Like Morrell, it was a full-circle stretch for Jones, who finished his career having played in more Big South games than any other player. He poured everything he’d learned through his six seasons as a Bulldog into the closing moments of the 2023 championship game. He scored 14 of his 24 points during that stretch.

Pember Announces Return

Shortly after the season, Big South Player of the Year Drew Pember announced he would be returning to the fold for the 2023-24 season.

Pember was simply outstanding this past season and will head into the 2023-23 campaign as once again one of the best players in mid-major basketball. With Pember’s return, it means the Bulldogs will return four of five starters for the 2023-24 campaign.

“He’s been really special to this program and I am excited to have the opportunity to coach someone like him for another year,” Morrell said. “I think more than that though is just being able to have a person like Drew Pember apart of this program for one final year is pretty neat, and I think it really speaks to the type of relationships that we have with guys here that they want to return to be a part of this for one more season.”

Pember posted a single-season program record of 733 points as well as free throws made (266). His free throw total was the 10th most in NCAA Division I basketball history. His 733 points in a single-season in 2022-23 ranked as the seventh-highest scoring total in NCAA Division I basketball this past season.

Against Presbyterian on Jan. 25, he poured in a school-record 48 points in an 88-80 overtime win by the Bulldogs. This performance marked the highest scoring performance in Division I this season.

But it wasn’t Pember just getting it done on the offensive end of the floor. His 80 blocked shots ranked 10th overall in the NCAA this past season. He became the first player in Big South history to win the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award in the same year.

All told, Pember finished the season averaging 20.9 PPG and 9.1 RPG. His 81 assists also ranked second on the team, while his 57 3-pointers were second to only Jones’ 99 triples this past season.

The former University of Tennessee player had a full-circle moment of his own when facing off against former Vols assistant Des Oliver and East Tennessee State just before Christmas. Pember connected on a 35-foot rainbow 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs a 74-73 win.

In addition to Pember, the Bulldogs return seven seniors, which includes three fifth-year seniors, as well as eight of the top nine scorers, including forward Nick McMullen (8.0 PPG), shooting guard Fletcher Abee (8.0 PPG, 41.4% from 3-point range), guard Caleb Burgess (148 assists) and forward Jamon Battle (6.4 PPG. 3.5 RPG).

Asheville makes some key portal acquisitions heading into the 2023-24 season

Morrell also added some key performers from the transfer portal: Georgia State transfer junior guard Evan Johnson, former VCU guard Josh Banks and former NC State redshirt senior forward Greg Gantt.

“I am really excited about what we’ve been able to add to an already good nucleus of returnees,” Morrell said. “With Josh [Banks] you’ve got a guy who played for one of my closest friends at VCU in Mike Rhodes – a guy I worked with for three years. We have very similar styles of play, especially defensively and kind of what we are looking for there. Hopefully Josh’s transition to UNC Asheville and our system is going to be expedited because there are a lot of similarities defensively, and I am just really excited about what he brings to the table. It’s definitely a position where we needed a little more. He’s 6-foot, 4-inches and athletic.

“Greg [Gantt] is really unique… [He] has played in the ACC and the Big East, so the guy knows what winning basketball looks like, and he knows what basketball at the highest level looks like. He’s unique in our program with his size and has a chance to be a real menace defensively. So, I think he and Josh both fit what we are really looking for on the defensive end. [They] also are maybe going to be able to bring something a little different on the offensive end.”

With one of mid-major basketball’s most talented big men, a veteran nucleus and a trio of talented additions via the transfer portal, Asheville is set up for a big 2023-24 season.

That’s the kind of noise Morrell won’t mind his players hearing.