UPDATE: I completely forgot that UNCA was ranked #1 in the Big South preseason poll, with Matt Dickey being named the preseason player of the year. Still, it’s only the preseason, and the real tests will come next month.
To say that Eddie Biedenbach and the UNC Asheville Bulldogs are riding a hot streak right now is a bit of an understatement. The team won 7 of their last 8 games, including a sweep of the Big South Tournament and a victory in the “First Four” round of the NCAA tournament. It was an amazing bookend to a season that started out with a win against Auburn and a relatively close loss to UNC (albeit a UNC with Larry Drew II as point guard). Matt Dickey became a video highlight reel unto himself with last-second shots against Coastal Carolina and Arkansas-Little Rock, while “Jumpin’ John” Williams, now the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots, earned a spot at the NCAA dunk contest that in turn led to a spot with the legendary Harlem Globetrotters. So yeah, a good season.
Unlike some schools (cough:Kentucky:cough) that have a lot of one-and-done players, UNCA benefits from having the ability to return a core group of players year after year after year. This year, the team returns four starters: JP Primm, Matt Dickey, Chris Stephenson, and Quinard Jackson. They also return Jaron Lane, a valuable sixth man who will see significant amounts of playing time this year, as well as John Nwanunu, a 6-8 forward who missed most of last year after injuring himself vs. Ohio State. That isn’t all, however. The ‘Dogs welcome several new faces this year, including guard Keith Hornsby (son of singer Bruce), who matriculated from Oak Hill Academy; Jaleel Roberts, a 7 foot center from Greensboro Day; and Chudier Pal, an Aussie who sat out last year presumably because the NCAA rulemakers are all from New Zealand (ok, just kidding). All three have the potential to contribute immediately.
That’s good, too, because while UNCA is returning four starters, they’ve also lost two key players in John Williams and DJ Cunningham. Williams, of course, along with Eric Stubbs, graduated last May and is currently traveling the world with the Harlem Globetrotters. DJ Cunningham, on the other hand, will redshirt his junior year due to knee surgery. This leaves a whole in the post for the Bulldogs that will have to be filled by Q, Roberts, and Pal. To put it in numbers, the Bulldogs have to replace 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game. I can see a small starting 5 with Primm, Dickey, Stephenson, Lane, and Jackson. Over the season I also expect that Roberts may get a few starts, especially against bigger squads. Regardless of who starts, though, the Bulldogs will need some size on the court.
UNCA always schedules some tough out-of-conference games, and this year is no exception. The first month of the year will pit the Bulldogs against 3 major-conference teams, including 2 ACC schools (NC State, UNC Chapel Hill) and last year’s national champion, UConn. Even more noteworthy is that the Carolina game will be at home, as UNCA opens Kimmel Arena with a bang. Tickets are going for 50 dollars and are rather hard to come by.
Over the next week, I’ll take a look at UNCA’s non-conference schedule, including a win/loss projection.