I’ll spare you my thoughts on the Syracuse game. I’ll simply say that, while the officiating had a lot to do with the nature of the outcome, Syracuse’s defense had more of an impact. The Orange held Asheville to 0 field goals for almost 5 minutes late in the second half. Attribute this to losing one’s “legs” or simply an increased intensity on the part of a more athletic team who realized that they didn’t want to be the first 1 seed to lose in the round of 64.
That being said, the Syracuse game served as a thrilling end to an incredible season. If there was a theme to this season it was this: Turning a new page.
Asheville’s long been plagued by problems common to many mid-majors: lack of funding, poor facilities, an apathetic student body, an inattentive fan base, and the difficulty in creating a true program that comes with playing at the margins of NCAA Division 1 basketball.
Thanks to the University and a group of private donors (who I can’t thank enough), two of those problems were alleviated in a huge way this year by the opening of Kimmel Arena. It’s one of the nicest venues in College Basketball. The seats put you right up next to the court without the feeling that you’re squeezed in. The amenities (ranging from improved ticket booths to local food options) are designed to appeal to both the diehard Bulldog and the casual fan. And it gets loud, especially when 3,500 people are packed in there. After the UNC game, Roy Williams said that the important thing Asheville needs to do is make sure that Kimmel is packed for as many games as possible. When it’s only 1/4 full, it can feel dead and empty.
Fortunately, this year’s team, building on last year’s successes, did a lot to make that job easier for UNCA by having what the best season in university history. That’s true by multiple measures: Overall record, conference record, end-of-year RPI, individual awards, attendance numbers, revenue, media coverage (both good and bad) and profile visibility. Heck, UNC Asheville even trended nationally on Twitter.
Full credit for this has to go to the players and coaches, especially seniors JP Primm and Matt Dickey. More so than any other players (including, yes, Kenny George), Primm and Dickey became synonymous with UNC Asheville, if only because they played on a level that surpassed anything that came before. Primm and Dickey ran with the best guards in college basketball – Kendall Marshall, Lorenzo Brown, Shabeez Napier, Scoop Jardine – and matched them every step of the way. Whereas before Asheville’s claim to fame was based on notoriety (as in, “did you see Tyler Hansbrough dunk on that tall guy” notoriety), these players – roommates, teammates, friends – earned their respect with their on-court performance. Their jerseys belong in the rafters of Kimmel Arena. Quinard Jackson and Chris Stephenson deserve praise as well, especially in their senior year when both stepped up to fill a front-court void vacated by the injured D.J. Cunningham. These four seniors played as one, demonstrating how fun and exciting college basketball can be when it’s played unselfishly. And this team was FUN to watch. They were the 5th highest scoring team in the nation (PPG), and were not afraid to both launch the three and run the ball. A lot of this had to do with size (a half-court offense won’t get you far when your starting “center” is 6-5) but it also had to do with the tenacity and hustle of a team that stole the ball, forced turnovers, and dished out perimeter scoring like none other.
All of that on-court production has revolutionized the nature of UNC Asheville Basketball. Last, week, JP Primm tweeted that he got a round of applause when he walked into class. That would NEVER HAVE HAPPENED when I was at UNC Asheville (2004-2008). I had class with some pretty good players, too – Bryan Smithson, for one – and the overall student and community interest in the team was for the most part nonexistent. That began to change in 2007-2008, when the Bulldogs went to the NIT on the backs of Smithson, Garland, and George – but it really didn’t take full effect until last year, when the Bulldogs broke out of the Big South to go to the NCAA tournament for the second time in school history.
Now, the Bulldogs will have to sustain the momentum that last year’s team created by playing a tough out-of-conference schedule (and competing in those games) and remaining in competition for the Big South regular season and tournament titles. With three starters (DJ Cunningham, Jeremy Atkinson, and Jaron Lane) returning, the loss of 4 seniors is not as bad as it could be. Add in experienced guards in Trent Meyer and Keith Hornsby, and you have the makings of a third trip to the dance in 2013.
Next week, I’ll take a look at where the Bulldogs will go next season, but it’s important to savor this season. It may not come around again for some time, though hopefully our rising seniors and juniors will work to change that. It was a great journey, guys. Thanks for taking us there.