At some point over the last 10 years, the UNC Asheville men’s basketball program graduated from occasional upstart to perennial contender.
Since becoming a Division I program in 1986, the Bulldogs had their moments of success – some winning seasons, a Big South Conference Tournament title in 1989 (before the league had an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney), even a magical run to the Big Dance in 2003.
But lacking was the consistency of year-to-year success, the difference of being a program fans hoped would be good instead of the confidence of knowing there would be winning seasons year after year.
But the Bulldogs have arrived.
Over the past 10 years, the program has won at least 15 games every year, with five seasons of 20 or more wins. Each of those 10 seasons produced 10 or more wins in conference play, a feat never accomplished by any other BSC school.
There have been three regular-season titles and three BSC tourney titles.
Five postseason appearances in that span include three trips to the NCAA tournament. Over the past seven seasons, the Bulldogs have finished with a losing record just once (15-16 in 2014-15), and this year Asheville is coming off back-to-back 20 win seasons for the second time in eight years.
The passing of the baton from veteran coach and program builder Eddie Biedenbach to former player and assistant coach Nick McDevitt was seamless and is now complete, McDevitt a still young but confident coach in charge who is 77-53 in four seasons.
In BSC play, he is an impressive 47-23, with a regular-season title and two second-place finishes.
The result of this graduated climb is higher expectations for the Bulldogs as they begin the 2017-18 season Friday at Rhode Island.
“There are high external expectations on this team,” said McDevitt, who welcomes back three starters from a 23-10 team that won a share of the BSC title last year with a 15-3 mark.
“We’ve also placed high internal expectations on ourselves, and we have for years. Our goals aren’t any different, to win the regular season championship and the tournament.”
Building off the strong foundation of returning players like Ahmad Thomas, MaCio Teague and Kevin Vannatta, the Bulldogs will also depend on a lot of younger talent.
A total of nine of 14 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores and junior Donovan Gilmore is a transfer, giving McDevitt an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters.
“Building team chemistry is our challenge this year,” said the coach, who played at Madison High before spending four years at Asheville playing for Biedenbach and another 12 seasons as his assistant.
“With 10 of those guys, they’ve only been here 15 months or less. You develop team play and understanding tendencies over years of playing together, and we have that with our seniors, but with the others we are just starting to develop some of that.”
“Expectations are a good thing,” said Teague. “Our goal is to always play within ourselves, and we believe we will be fine.”
Recruiting freshmen who can come in and produce immediately has been a staple since McDevitt became the head coach in 2013.
Over the past four seasons, five first-year players were named to the BSC All-Freshmen teams, and two – Andrew Rowsey and Teague – were Freshmen of the Year.
And it is a testament to the Bulldogs’ depth and recruiting prowess that the program remained successful while three of those stars – Rowsey to Marquette, Dylan Smith to Arizona and Dwayne Sutton to Louisville – transferred to prominent Division I programs.
Thomas and Teague are the program’s two returning leading scorers who will be depended on heavily again.
A 6-3 senior, Thomas averaged 18 points and 6.6 rebounds, and his 99 steals helped make him the BSC Defensive Player of the Year.
Teague, a 6-5 guard, averaged 15.4 ppg as a freshman and showed a knack for making clutch plays.
Vannatta is a steady, do-everything player who has 84 starts in three seasons, while fellow seniors Alex Wnuk of Christ School and Raekwon Miller of McDowell High will be expected to play bigger roles this season.
“Ahmad understands that other teams will key on him, and he has to be aware of that because he has had so much success for us,” said McDevitt.
“MaCio is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around, mature beyond his years about getting better. He’s really improving in a lot of areas.”
Two 6-4 freshmen – LJ Thorpe and Jalen Seegars – are expected to be part of the rotation and contribute to the tradition of new players coming in and helping immediately.
As usual, a challenging non-conference schedule awaits, with games at Vanderbilt, Clemson and Saint Mary’s.
And the season opener Friday in the NIT Tipoff is at Rhode Island, a team ranked in the top 30 in preseason polls and coming off a 25-win season with a NCAA tournament appearance.
“We’re the preseason pick to win the (conference), but that doesn’t change our mindset,” said Thomas, a 1,000-point scorer with the Bulldogs.
“But we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t hung a banner for this season…(but) the numbers don’t lie. We have won 20-some games the past two years, and we’re finding out who we are.”