The defensive end of the floor is the main reason UNC Asheville will take the floor in Brooklyn on Friday in the NCAA Tournament. Asheville leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage defense, ranks sixth in steals per game and has fostered an identity through versatility to punch a ticket to the Big Dance for the fourth time in program history.
On the surface, Asheville does not fit the profile of an NCAA Tournament team. Third-year coach Nick McDevitt’s squad features eight underclassmen, starts four, and has no player taller than 6-6 in its rotation. Throw in the transfer of prolific scorer Andrew Rowsey to Marquette last spring, and it’s easy to see why the Bulldogs were picked seventh in the Big South Conference’s preseason poll.
Watch Asheville play, though, and it’s easy to see why it was the surprise of the league in the regular season, and why it was a surprise to few that it cut down the nets at the conference tournament.
“I think we have interchangeable parts, for one, so that we’re able to play multiple defenses,” McDevitt said of a lineup that features All-Big South Freshman Team guards Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton.
“Because of those interchangeable parts, we’re also able to defend the ball screen in multiple ways. Obviously, almost everybody out there runs some type of ball screen during a possession so by being able to defend in multiple ways throughout the course of the game, that makes us pretty good.”
The Bulldogs were more than pretty good defensively in their Big South Tournament run. Asheville swiped 31 steals and held its three opponents to 34% shooting overall, and an 18 percent clip from three-point range. Led by its length on the perimeter, Asheville erased an 11-point first half deficit in the title game against Winthrop, frustrating the Eagles into a 5-of-33 effort from beyond the arc.
“We certainly like what we have and sometimes, you have to find a way to get your best players on the floor,” McDevitt said. “I think if you’re gonna play small frontline guys, you better have big backcourt players because otherwise, you’re small at every position. We’re certainly smaller than most with our post players but for most of our games, we’re bigger in the backcourt. Because of that, we’re able to defend and rebound most nights.”
Asheville has also been able to score enough without Rowsey, an elite long-range shooter who racked up 1,242 points — second-most by a player in his first two seasons in the Big South — before deciding to leave the school last April. Smith and Sutton shouldered the scoring load as freshmen, and were helped out by fellow starters Kevin Vannatta, Ahmad Thomas and Sam Hughes, all of whom average in double figures.
The Bulldogs are not a particularly strong 3-point shooting team, but can drive the basketball with the best of them, reason why they ranked top-50 nationally in free throws made and attempted.
“Any time you have multiple guys who can put the ball in the basket, you’re harder to guard as a team,” McDevitt said. “Because we were so balanced this year, that’s part of what made us pretty good. I think it’s our job as coaches to find out what each player’s strengths and weaknesses are and then when you put the team together, do the same. Then on game night, when the ball goes in the air, just let players make plays.”
Sutton and Smith made a lot of plays for an Asheville team that did not have any players on the all-conference team despite leading the league for much of the year. Sutton, a rugged and unconventional 6-5 guard, ranked second in the Big South in rebounding and earned Tournament MVP honors thanks to a 25-point, 18-rebound showing against Winthrop in the championship game. Smith paced the Bulldogs in scoring at 13.5 PPG, and coolly stepped into a starting role after junior David Robertson suffered a broken foot against Liberty on Jan. 2.
The maturation of a young group has been fun to oversee for the 37-year old McDevitt, a part of Asheville’s 2003, 2011 and 2012 NCAA Tournament teams as an assistant coach. McDevitt has spent the last 19 years at Asheville as a player and coach, and now will lead his alma mater against No. 2 seed and Big East regular season champion Villanova on Friday. He will do so while enjoying a team that has exceeded most outside expectations throughout the year.
“They’re certainly versatile, but they’re tough young men,” McDevitt said. “They’re physically tough, mentally tough, unselfish players, team-first guys. Again, I think when you’ve got a lot of guys that are talented in their own right and willing to sacrifice at times for the benefit of the team, that makes a special group.”