Men’s Basketball enters the new season with high expectations and excitement

UNC Asheville men’s basketball’s first regular season game is right around the corner starting on Nov. 7, as the Bulldogs travel to Central Florida to begin their non-conference schedule.

The Bulldogs enter the 2022-2023 season with high goals from the Big South conference media. They were picked to finish third in the league’s preseason poll behind defending conference champion Longwood and Winthrop.

UNCA’s very own senior forward Drew Pember was named the Big South conference’s preseason player of the year, while graduate student guard Taijon Jones was named to the preseason All-Big South Second Team.

Last season, Asheville finished the regular season with a 17-15 overall record with an even 8-8 record in conference play. The Bulldogs entered the postseason as a 5th seed in the conference, falling to the 12th seed Charleston Southern in the first round. 

In 2021-2022, Pember led the Bulldogs in scoring 15.7 points per game and finished in the top ten nationally, averaging 3 blocks per game. Jones averaged 12.8 points per game and is currently ranked second all-time in program history 261 3-pointers made.

Jones has looked to make adjustments to his overall game this upcoming season, including perfecting his three-point ball. 

“I’m working on my ball handling a little bit more. I’ve been working on my mid-level range a little more this off-season to be a three-level scorer this season,” he said.

Head coach Mike Morrell begins his fifth season as the Bulldogs headman following a year in which he helped lead Asheville to their first postseason trip since 2018, with an appearance in the College Basketball invitational.

Morrell enters the regular season saying he hopes to see improvements on both ends on the court, especially on defense, where he said rebounding and finishing were two big areas that needed work.

“Statistically, that was the area we needed to grow in the most. It’s the area we attacked the most in recruiting. It’s the area we have probably grown the most in the preseason. But obviously, we have to see that going into the season,” said coach Morrell.

Offensively, Morrell said he wants to see his players get more shots on as many possessions as they can while staying connected as a team. 

“Our turnover percentage last season was a little too high, especially in the last four to five minutes of the game. We can’t be flip-floppy with that every day or every single game and being a little bit more sturdy. If we do that, then we have a chance at having a good year,” Morrell said.

Jones said that he and his teammates’ expectations are the same: win the Big South conference championship. 

“We want to win the league and try to win the regular season. Just win, take every game one by one and try to win more than you lose,” he said.

Coach Morrell said the expectations he’s more worried about are what goes on during practice and with each game this upcoming season.

“So, there are the outside expectations, and then the only expectation that I am really worried about is did we get better today from yesterday, and then are we going to be better tomorrow from where we are at today? If we can do that, then you can reach the expectations that you’re talking about, which is being picked atop the league and having preseason player of the year and having another all-league guy on the preseason team,” said Morrell.

Jones expressed his excitement for the upcoming season with a vengeful taste. “I’m just really excited. Mostly excitement and revenge. That’s probably our whole team’s motivation this year,” he said.

Coach Morrell said all of his players have improved in their own ways this off-season. However, he says that one player stands out that could be an impactful piece in the Bulldogs starting lineup. “I would go with Fletcher Abee,” Morrell said.

Junior guard Fletcher Abee previously started for The Citadel, averaging over 12 PPG and shooting 37.4 percent from the 3-point line during the 2020-2021 season. Abee was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Coach Morrell said that Abee has made an enormous jump for them this off-season from when he arrived on campus in December, enough to where he is going to be a part of the starting lineup this season. 

“He enrolled here last December so he got most of December and all of the spring to not only get introduced but understand what, how, when and where we do the things we do. I think since the summer, man, he has kind of taken off and supplanted himself as a key member of our rotation,” said Morrell.

Asheville plays Milligan in an exhibition game on Nov. 1 at 6:30 PM. On the week of Thanksgiving, the Bulldogs host out-of-conference regional foe, Western Carolina, on Nov. 26 at 2 PM.

UNCA will be televised nationally two times this season, traveling to Charlotte to play Dayton on Dec. 10 on USA Network. Later in the month, they’ll travel once more to one of the current basketball powerhouse, Arkansas, on Dec. 21 on the SEC Network.