Asheville: it’s a good American city. Think of all the great things you can do there: eat good food, go to excellent breweries, see a quality concert every now and then. Sometimes, it feels like it gets lost in the shuffle of larger Southeastern cities; indeed, it’s far smaller than I initially thought (estimated population of 92,000, per Wikipedia), and it ranks out as just the 108th-largest metropolitan area in the United States.
And yet: I’d take Asheville over all but four cities in this list. It’s a very pleasant downtown to visit, and pound-for-pound, it might be the most purely enjoyable visit in the Southeast, considering relatively minimal traffic and the lower population. It’s a city that punches well above its weight class and can be counted on to beat a few of the bigger guys out there.
For a while, its basketball program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville mirrored the city’s progress. From 2007-08 to 2017-18, the Bulldogs of Asheville finished with a winning record in the Big South every season, made the NCAA Tournament three times, nearly pulled off a 16-seed stunner, and, for the better part of this run, was the program to beat in the Big South under a pair of talented head coaches (Eddie Biedenbach and Nicholas McDevitt).
McDevitt left for Middle Tennessee in 2018; behind him came Mike Morrell, a 36-year-old from Elizabethton, TN. If you want a true started-from-the-bottom guy, it’s him: Morrell played at Milligan College, began his coaching career at King University, and only breached Division I because of a relationship with Shaka Smart. Morrell bears some amount of responsibility for the following Guys You Know: Troy Daniels, Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Isaiah Taylor, and Jarrett Allen.
Now, Morrell is in the midst of a program-wide teardown operation. Last year, UNC Asheville posted a 4-27 record – 4-0 against a pair of non-D-Is plus USC Upstate, 0-27 against everyone else, including a D-II loss – while playing the youngest lineup in America. Upon Morrell’s arrival at UNCA in April 2018, his two best players immediately transferred out, followed by valuable backup Drew Rackley. This was after the team he inherited graduated three starters and its sixth man. Any time a team loses its eight best players, things are going to be, uh, challenging.
Morrell’s hope and prayer is that his full-on youth movement in 2018-19 pays off in 2019-20. KenPom sees a program that realistically can’t be any worse, spotting them 293rd after a 347th-place run last year; Torvik, 241st after 344th. The benefit of last year’s awfulness: other than Donovan Gilmore, every UNC Asheville scholarship player from 2018-19 returns, and they get to add a pair of transfers in Jax Levitch (Fort Wayne) and Lavar Batts (NC State). The assumption here is that the worst days are over and, in Morrell’s true Year One, the program will at least be a mid-level Big South foe. Alternately, this could still be a really bad team with a long, long way to go. We’ll see.
AFTER THE JUMP: Hey did you know their coach is a Shaka disciple
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