Season Recap

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.

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Preview: Asheville vs. Syracuse

Where: CONSOL energy center, Pittsburgh, PA
When: Today, 3:10 P.M.
Media: TruTV, WWNC 570

When you’re a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, there’s one statistic that always comes up.  No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed ever since the field expanded to 64 teams.  With that knowledge, a team and their fans can often go into a game with a “lambs to the slaughter” mentality.  Not this team, and not this fan.

I was going to type up a preview essentially saying that Syracuse will win today, and Asheville can keep it close if they play really well.  But then two things happened.  The first, of course, is Fab Melo, who didn’t do his homework and will miss the entire tournament as a result.  As Matt Dickey said, Syracuse can just replace him with another McDonalds All-American, but it’d be folly to say that Melo’s loss doesn’t impact today’s game.

Without Melo, Syracuse loses their tallest starter and a good 4 inches on Asheville.  Their tallest starter is now 6’9″, which is to say 4 inches taller than Quinard Jackson.  Melo was also the Big East Defensive POY.  What does this mean for the Bulldogs?  The 2-3 zone, which Boeheim is famous for running, loses a bit of its potency without a long athletic center in the middle.  Chris, Q, and Jeremy Atkinson will have to use this to Asheville’s advantage and drive to the hoop without fear.  This may also open up Matt and JP for more perimeter shots and pullup jumpers.  This lessened height difference will also allow the frontcourt to crash off boards against a bigger team like we’ve done all year.

The second thing that popped in my mind is the success this team has had against “major” teams this year.  Granted, the record is not there, but Asheville has played every single major conference squad very close this year (heck, even in 2011, where we gave Pitt quite a scare).  Asheville needs to get out and play even with Cuse from the get go, not letting them get ahead and deliver a KO in the first 5 minutes.  In the UConn game, that’s exactly what happened and while we outplayed the Huskies in the last 15 minutes, of the game, Connecticut’s massive run at the start ensured that they always had breathing room.  Given the focus on defense this team has had over the past month, I think the Bulldogs will work to minimize such an occurrence.

It’s never happened before.  Why not Asheville?  If the Bulldogs bring their “A” game, then it’s a definite possibility.

Asheville 82, Syracuse 80

Guest post: belated BSC recap.

Yes Sir, they did it again. Anything but a Big South tournament championship after this season would have been a disappointment. This game seemed like destiny.

The Bulldogs got off to a quick start with J.P. getting two easy buckets, but VMI scrapped back. After trading 3s with the score 16-11, Trent Meyer came off the bench for a quick two and a 4-point lead before the Keydets (what’s a Keydet? MS Word doesn’t even recognize it as part of the English language) came surging back to bring it within one (24-23) with 7 minutes to play in the first half. After some hard fouls, assistant coach Nic McDevitt got the crowd going and UNCA forced a few quick turnovers but were unable to capitalize on all of them.

VMI closed the half out with a 3 to bring the game back within one, Bulldogs up 36-35. This half was a little too close for one’s liking. Eddie had the guards pressuring up court and the forwards gambling in the passing lanes, so most of Asheville’s points were coming off turnovers here, but when the forwards got beat it was almost an automatic score for VMI. The Bulldogs’ offense was not helping the cause either, too many forced shots and very little rhythm kept them from opening this game up a little more. But never fear; Eddie got the boys going in the locker room, came out for the second half, and never looked back.

The second half got a little out of hand (Big South refs just aren’t up to snuff), but UNCA didn’t let it affect them as they got the offense going and started rolling. The lead got to around 10 early on as the Bulldogs began capitalizing off VMI mistakes. Around the 8:30 mark with Asheville up 9, VMI called a timeout. This is when things started to snowball. Unforced errors on the Keydets and terrific rebounding from Chris Stephenson, Jaron Lane, and Jeremy Atkinson increased the lead to 16 with 3:30 left to play. The crowd and the players started to realize the Dogs were going dancing again. JP Primm took over the last 3 minutes of the game sealing his Big South Tournament MVP and the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs rolled to an 80-64 victory of the VMI Keydets.

Players of the Game:

  • JP Primm- 16 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 steals
  • Jeremy Atkinson- 18 point (7-11), 6 assists, 5 rebounds

Other Interesting Tidbits:

  • -Bulldogs only shot 21% from three. Had you told me this stat before the game, I would have predicted a loss. A testament to solid defense and rebounding against a bigger team (what else is new?)
  • -All Tournament Team: JP Primm, Jeremy Atkinson (well deserved), Chris Stephenson. Plus two VMI players.
  • -Tournament MVP: JP Primm
  • And before I say goodbye, I just want to shout out to the students, fans, and community members at the Kimmel today. The place was rocking, I was getting reports that it looked great on ESPN2, so props to Bulldog Nation.
  • And finally, big ups to the players, they’ve played with so much heart all year and deserve to be dancing.

-Peter Carpenter