By Kevin Sweeney
The record books will show that UNC-Asheville had nine newcomers on its 2018-19 roster.
Head coach Mike Morrell thinks differently.
“It’s not really nine new guys, it’s also a new coach with thirteen new players,” Morrell said earlier this month while reflecting on his first season as a head coach. “It was a definite learning process for all of us.”
Despite every stumbling block Morrell faced as he took over: inheriting a roster with tons of open scholarships due to graduations and transfers, not getting his entire roster onto campus until the fall semester, and eventually trotting out the youngest roster in the country, the Shaka Smart disciple is quick to dispel any notion that taking over when he did was difficult.
Instead, he sees it as an opportunity– a chance to build a program that has had plenty of past success back from the ground up.
76% of the team’s minutes last season were played by freshmen. Each of the team’s top five scorers were freshmen. And if the growing pains that come with being as young as the Bulldogs were weren’t enough, Morrell also lost one of his most talented players in LJ Thorpe to a foot injury that sidelined him for much of non-conference play and limited him at times even after returning.
As a result, the record wasn’t pretty. The Bulldogs went 4-27, won just two games against D1 opponents (both against USC Upstate), and ranked 347th out of 353 in KenPom’s final efficiency rankings.
While it may have led to a rough year one, Morrell hopes his team will reap the benefits of throwing all those young guys into the fire a season ago.
“The biggest difference for me when we get to year two versus year one has been having a team that can grasp things quicker and having a team that can actually help each other in terms of coaching instead of looking at nine new guys,” Morrell said.
“I don’t think there is a better teacher than experience.”
One guy who got tons of experience in year one was guard DeVon Baker. After playing in a supporting role at SPIRE Academy in Ohio next to the likes of Jalen Pickett (Siena), Caleb McConnell (Rutgers), and Dom Welch (Saint Bonaventure), Baker was given the keys from day one and showed plenty of promise. Baker averaged 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game in his freshman campaign, playing with the ball in his hands a ton and rarely leaving the floor for the Bulldogs. However, Morrell says he hopes to take some of the burden off Baker, ideally freeing up the Dayton, OH product to score off screens. One piece who can help ease that load is NC State transfer LaVar Batts, a former top-100 recruit who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Batts, who Morrell called a “dynamic athlete” and a “disruptor”, should thrive at the Big South level. While he struggled as a shooter during his time in Raleigh, his outstanding speed should allow him to get to the rim with frequency as well as help the Bulldogs get out in transition.
Between Baker, Batts, Thorpe, and Taijon Jones (10.2 ppg in 2018-19), UNC-Asheville has plenty of backcourt weapons to be excited about– and that’s not even considering a trio of freshmen in Trent Stephney, AJ McBride, and Jamon Battle.
Up front, the Bulldogs may not have the girth of some Big South foes, but they do have a pair of forwards who can really stretch the floor in sophomore Coty Jude and Fort Wayne transfer Jax Levitch. A rare veteran on a still-young team, Morrell says Levitch’s most important asset will be his leadership ability. The potential to play five-out basketball with Levitch at the four and Jude at the five is there, and that lineup would present some major matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Inspired by The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz’s question to Tom Crean in March, I asked Morrell at the beginning of our conversation if, given the opportunity to go back and do it all over again, if there’s anything he would have done differently. Unlike Crean, Morrell said no– he wouldn’t change a thing.
You don’t have to be a college basketball lifer to understand how difficult going 4-27 in the first year of your first head coaching job must have been. Yet Morrell sees the positives: the fact that his team played its best in February, and that a group that had to learn on the fly last season got the best experience it possibly could have by taking those lumps.
Morrell has his guys– 11 of 13 scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores still, with room to grow as a unit over the next few seasons. The Bulldogs will still be incredibly young in 2019-20, but significant improvement should be expected for a team that is more talented, more experienced, and more familiar with one another than they were a year ago.