Beyond the Scoreboard: Bulldogs enter Big South tourney as the favorite

Ahmad Thomas hopes to lead the Bulldogs to their fifth NCAA tournament in 16 years. (Photo credit: UNC Asheville)

The stage has been set, the script all but written for the UNC Asheville basketball team to earn a fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in 16 years.

The best team in the Big South Conference this season with a 13-5 mark, a trophy earned over two months of an 18-game league schedule, the reward home-court advantage for the conference tournament that runs Thursday through Sunday.

And what an advantage it is for the Bulldogs (20-11).

Since Kimmel Arena opened in 2011, Asheville is 81-17 in the cozy building that seats 3,200. Against Big South opponents, the Bulldogs’ record is 56-11, including three straight wins in the 2012 Big South tourney at Kimmel, the last time it was held here.

More recently, Asheville is 26-2 at home over the past two seasons and has won 22 of its last 23 games at Kimmel.

Armed with four seniors whose four-year resumes include two regular-season championships and a BSC tournament title in 2016 that sent them to the NCAAs, the Bulldogs are loaded with experience.

The four seniors are the only group in the program’s history to win 80 games in four years and reach the 20-win level three straight seasons.

Senior Ahmad Thomas (16.8 points per game) and sophomore MaCio Teague (16.4 ppg) are first-team all-conference stars who carry much of the offensive load.

Thomas is a versatile wing/post player who is ranked in the league’s top 10 in five statistical categories. Teague is the BSC’s top player in 3-pointers made (85), 3-point percentage (42 percent) and minutes played (34.9).

The role players who contribute include seniors Kevin Vannatta, Alec Wnuk and Raekwon Miller and sophomore Jonathan Baehre.

Coach Nick McDevitt has established himself as a winner, three victories away from 100 in his fifth season in charge. No. 100 could come Sunday in the tournament title game.

Now, the team must win three games in four days to get to the Big Dance, starting with a 7 p.m. quarterfinal game Thursday versus Charleston Southern (15-15). The Buccaneers played Asheville close in two-regular-season losses – 83-73 in Asheville and 85-80 in overtime at home less than two weeks ago.

A third win over Charleston Southern would put the Bulldogs into a semifinal game Friday. A win there would land Asheville in Sunday’s Big South championship game for 10th time in the 33-year history of the league.

The Bulldogs have won five BSC tournaments – 1989, 2003, 2011, 2012 and 2016.

This year’s tournament is full of teams capable of winning – seven of the eight teams won 14 or more games, and it is a balanced league without a clear favorite.

Except for the team at the top with home-court advantage.

This is the opinion of Keith Jarrett. Contact him at keithjarrettasheville@gmail.com.

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