In each of the last three years, Winthrop has reached the Big South Conference Tournament final under Pat Kelsey. And now, in each of the last three seasons, Kelsey and the Eagles have fallen.
This time around, it was UNC-Asheville that will go dancing instead of them, as the Bulldogs defeated the Eagles 77-68. Freshman Dwayne Sutton was the star for Asheville, scoring 25 points and grabbing 18 rebounds as the Bulldogs went from No. 4 seed in the Big South Tournament to dancing for the first time since 2012.
Nick McDevitt’s Asheville is among the youngest teams in the country, featuring two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, meaning this group could have a shot to really get things rolling there for a while to come. It’s also worth noting that despite their youth, they were the clear best defensive team in the Big South with a high-pressure, high energy scheme that forces opponents out of their comfort zone. They made waves earlier this season for beating Georgetown and sending the Hoyas to a losing record in Big South play, so they likely won’t be afraid of the big boys either.
Here’s what you need to know when filling out your bracket about UNC-Asheville.
Player to watch: The aforementioned Sutton is a good pick, as he’s averaging 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He’s the nominal center on this roster oftentimes, and tends to guard players bigger than he most possessions. Fellow freshman Dylan Smith is also another to watch, as he leads the team in scoring at over 13 points per game.
- Record: 22-11 overall, 12-6 in the Big South (No. 4 seed)
- Most recent tournament appearance: 2012 (lost to No. 1 seed Syracuse as a No. 16 by only seven after a hotly-contested game. Shout out to J.P Primm.)
- Jerry Palm predicts: 15 seed
- RPI: 149
- KenPom ranking: 117
- Sagarin ranking: 143
- Best wins: at Georgetown, Winthrop (twice), East Tennessee State
- Worst losses: Radford (twice)
- Notable stat: 22.6. Asheville forces turnovers on 22.6 percent of its opponents’ possessions defensively, good for 10th nationally. This is a really high-pressure defense that uses its quickness well, and knows exactly how to force takeaways to create extra possessions in order to make up for their size. If they run into a team that can be careless with the ball, we could see a pretty fun matchup between the Bulldogs and one of the big boys in college hoops this season.
Closing quip: Overall, it’s pretty tremendous work by McDevitt and company to get this roster to the NCAA Tournament. It’s a skilled roster, but one that also lacks experience and size. None of the rotation players on Asheville’s roster are over 6-6. Sutton, Smith, and Will Weeks are their biggest players at 6-5, 6-5, and 6-6 respectively, meaning they could run into quite a bit of trouble if they’re matched up with a team that can bully them in the paint. Regardless though, their opening round game should at least be an uptempo affair that is fun to watch.