Graduating to the Next level
By Steve Plever
If there were a men's basketball tournament just for players who graduated this past May, UNC Asheville could have been the nation's top seed. Six players, including four starters on the Big South champion Bulldogs, received diplomas in May.
Going to the Dance: Need caption
Now, as these young men face the challenge of pro team tryouts, graduate school and careers in the real world, the men's basketball program faces the challenge of maintaining its winning tradition.
In two seasons, the Bulldogs have become the dominating force of the Big South, winning 25 of 27 games against conference opponents. New recruits are no longer deterred by the prospect of playing in one of the oldest, smallest gyms in all of Division I. Now they are attracted by the sparkling new Kimmel Arena, where the Bulldogs won the conference championship before a packed house on national television in March.
And when UNC Asheville came within four minutes—and a few controversial whistles—of beating national powerhouse Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, it was clear that the program had arrived.
Can the graduating Bulldog players succeed at the next level? Can the program continue to flourish in their absence? For the players and program, there are no givens, but a firm foundation is in place.
"Our number-one asset is our people. We have been able to recruit some very talented student-athletes and coaches who are truly teachers of the game," says Janet R. Cone, director of athletics, whose department budget is not just the smallest in the Big South, but the third smallest among the 227 public Division I schools, according to USA Today. "We are able to overcome the things that we do not have if we work hard, we work together, and we work smart. It's a pretty simple formula."
Over four years, the Bulldog senior core came to embody Cone's formula, beginning with togetherness—they usually studied together, worked out together, and lived together. Graduation separated three pairs of roommates: backcourt mates Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm; walk-on players Jeremy Harn and Madison Davis; and fellow Floridians Quinard Jackson and Chris Stephenson.
None of this year's graduating Bulldogs were All-Americans in high school. They weren't offered scholarships to NBA stepping-stone schools like Kansas, Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill. It took time and a tremendous amount of effort for them to develop into a team that could compete with any in the country.
Breakfast of Champions: For four years, the championship seniors' daily routine started with breakfast with Coach Biedenbach (left) and ended with team study sessions at Ramsey Library.
Head Coach Eddie Biedenbach says that all the seniors set a hard-working tone for the team, but he singles out Primm and Dickey for their leadership and work ethic. "If people only knew the hours they have put in to become the players they are," said Biedenbach. "They have done so much for this program… done so much on and off the court for each other and their teammates."
Losing the six seniors will be a blow, but the players feel that UNC Asheville has an infrastructure in place to out-perform small-school expectations. "I don't know what goes on at the bigger schools, but our coaching staff has been incredible," said Big South Conference Player of the Year Matt Dickey. "They're focused, they have the scouting reports just dead on every game. Coach Biedenbach has obviously done great things for this program, but the assistants, Brett Carey, Nick McDevitt and Dion Dacons have been awesome."
"Our assistant coaches made me work on the things I wasn't good at, like my left hand and shooting," said Quinard Jackson. "And they would prepare us so I would know what the opposing players were about to do so I would be in position to defend it. You don't become great fast, but by working over the years, you get better and better and really polish your game."
Time to improve is one advantage that programs like UNC Asheville have over the Kentuckies and Syracuses, where star players often go right into the NBA draft after only one or two years. "We develop guys who are average coming in, but have potential," said Bulldog Assistant Coach Brett Carey. "We didn't beat anyone recruiting Matt Dickey. Everyone else said 'he's not big enough.' And people were scared to take a chance on J.P. We were fortunate to get them, and to their credit, they came in and worked."
When Bulldog power forward John Williams graduated in May 2011 and began touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, he left big shoes—high-flying shoes—to fill. But the Bulldogs didn't miss a beat because Jeremy Atkinson, junior college first-team All-American, decided to transfer to UNC Asheville.
Atkinson took notice when the Bulldogs won the Big South title in 2011 and came to visit campus a month later. "I spent pretty much my whole visit with Matt, J.P. and Jaron Lane—a great group of guys," said Atkinson.
That time together, which helped seal the deal for Atkinson, was no accident. "One of the main things we want [prospects] to do is get a chance to hang out with our guys, because they are good guys and they'll be able to sell the program," said Assistant Coach Brett Carey. "That's helped us continue to get good players and good kids."
While the new arena and two straight Big South championships are certainly an attraction for potential new Bulldogs, the 'togetherness factor' could be just as important. "This university in particular has a family atmosphere that's tough to find at some places," said Associate Head Coach Nick McDevitt. And when you're playing with what you consider one of your closest friends or your 'brother,' you fight that much harder for them.
Catching the Nation's Eye
Early in the second half of the Bulldogs' battle against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, it looked like UNC Asheville could become the first 16-seed to defeat a top seed in March Madness history. It wasn't until four minutes left in the game that Syracuse took the lead back, and for days after the game, the nation's sports analysts argued over controversial referee calls that cost the Bulldogs a chance to win.
It is hard not to focus on what might have been, but the Bulldog players also came away with a strong sense of accomplishment. "On the final day of the tournament, on national television, Kenny Smith (sportscaster) gave us a personal shout out," recalls Chris Stephenson. "It lets us know that people haven't forgotten, and that's what's most important." The professional basketball world also took notice of the Bulldogs. "After we lost to Syracuse," said Stephenson, "there was about a 24-hour window and then the letters from agents started to come."
And with their season over and final exams looming, four of the Bulldog seniors continued to practice, perhaps longer and harder than ever. Stephenson, Dickey, Primm and Jackson all hope to land professional contracts. "Coach isn't telling us to come to the gym," said Stephenson, "it's our job now."
The Bulldog seniors' likeliest prospects are in Europe or Asia, but this summer could see a Jeremy Lin effect, with NBA scouts looking more carefully at guards like Dickey and Primm from smaller schools, hoping to discover the next unheralded star.
Jackson is looking for work both on and off the court, "I'm looking at companies like Under Armor, Nike and Reebok, trying to use my athletic background and management degree."
Jeremy Harn is headed to law school and Madison Davis is considering graduate studies and future coaching prospects.
Changing of the Guard
Looking ahead to next season, the Bulldogs' most established players are senior forwards Jaron Lane and Jeremy Atkinson, and center D.J. Cunningham, who is returning following recovery from knee surgery.
A trio of younger student-athletes—junior Trent Meyer and sophomores Keith Hornsby and Corey Littlejohn—will be looking to establish themselves next season. Will they have the same Dickey/Primm work ethic? Can the winning team chemistry continue?
"I don't think they realize yet that it doesn't happen naturally by osmosis by the older guys graduating and they take their place," said Biedenbach. "Almost every year… we go through a tough spell of the players realizing how hard they have to play individually—and then collectively as a team—in order to win games in our league. That's the fun of putting these teams together and seeing who evolves as a leader, as a consistent player, as a real team player."
The fun starts all over again at Kimmel Arena in November.