When his young team lost two of its last three regular season games to squander the Big South title, UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt didn’t panic. Berating them would only impede the rapid rebound needed to win the conference tournament. Besides, McDevitt knew his squad was playing well. He could handle losing to two top-tier teams by a combined three points.
UNCA avenged one of those late losses, defeating Winthrop 82-77 on March 6 to win the conference tournament in Buies Creek, North Carolina, then spent much of the last week resting. It learned Sunday that it would be the 15th seed in the South Region, bound for Brooklyn and a Friday afternoon date with No. 2 Villanova.
The program celebrated its fourth NCAA tournament trip with the requisite selection show party, of course. Players and coaches stood and hollered when their name appeared on the big screen. It’s the best seed for the Bulldogs, who won the play-in game as a No. 16 seed in 2003 and the First Four in 2011.
McDevitt, 36, has participated in each trip. He was a backup guard at UNCA from 1997-2001 and joined former coach Eddie Biedenbach’s staff the next year.
“We’re going to enjoy it,” McDevitt said. “We’re part of the lucky few that are playing. I told our young men they’ve earned the opportunity and we’re going to approach it like it’s any other game. We aren’t going to change our routines.”
McDevitt was promoted to associate head coach in 2011 and took over the program before the 2013-14 season. UNCA is 54-42 in his three seasons, but this first NCAA trip was unexpected. The Bulldogs, who start two freshmen and two sophomores, were picked seventh in the Big South preseason poll after last season’s leading scorer, Andrew Rowsey, transferred to Marquette. From the outset they showed signs of exceeding those expectations, however, finishing second in the Great Alaska Shootout, and defeating East Tennessee State and Georgetown in consecutive games.
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“They play together so well,” McDevitt said. “You could see early on that they were close and a little more mature than the average young player. We felt like then if we could continue to improve we had a chance to achieve some special things with this group.”
All five starters average in double figures, yet freshmen Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton have been terrific, forecasting a bright future on this beautiful campus of 3,900 students tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Smith led the team in scoring (13.5 ppg) and nailed a game-winner at the horn to beat Furman on Dec. 29. Sutton led the team in rebounding (7.8 rpg) and dominated the Big South title game with 25 points and 18 rebounds.
UNCA often puts five players of similar size (6-4 to 6-6) on the floor. Such versatility allows the Bulldogs to become somewhat positionless, mix defenses, switch all on-ball screens and apply frenetic fullcourt pressure that forced teams into turnovers on 22.4 percent of possessions (ninth in the nation). It also choked off opponents’ production behind the 3-point line (D1 teams shot 28.8 percent against UNCA and made less than six per game).
Expecting to rattle a veteran squad like Villanova (29-5) is probably unrealistic. The Big East regular season champs are top 15 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, won nine games against the KenPom top 50 and held the No. 1 spot in those ratings for part of the season. Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson are surehanded point guards, while No. 2 seeds hold an all-time edge of 117-7 in first-round matchups with an average margin of victory of 16 points.
But in the early days of the tournament’s opening week, underdogs like Asheville embrace hope in the face of reality. They prefer to remember that 15 seeds have pulled three of those stunners since 2012. Or that in each of the last two years the Wildcats enjoyed similar regular season success, earned a high seed - and failed to escape the tournament’s opening weekend.
UNCA almost made history once before. McDevitt was on the bench in the 2012 NCAA tournament when the Bulldogs pushed top-seeded Syracuse to the final possessions before falling 72-65.
In March, each day is a gift for a program hailing from the nation’s 23rd best conference, anyway. And, the next unknown pulling an upset story is just waiting to be written.