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Description: No one saw this coming. The Big South’s basketball coaches picked UNC Asheville’s men’s team to finish seventh in the conference. And Bulldog Head Coach Nick McDevitt admits, “We knew that we were

No one saw this coming. The Big South’s basketball coaches picked UNC Asheville’s men’s team to finish seventh in the conference. And Bulldog Head Coach Nick McDevitt admits, “We knew that we were talented, but we also knew that we were really young.”

But McDevitt’s team grew up quickly in a non-conference schedule featuring road games against big-name opponents like Tennessee (a four-point loss) and Georgetown (a six-point win), and the Bulldogs have become the surprise success story of the Big South Conference.

Freshman Dylan Smith leads the team in scoring, fellow freshman Dwayne Sutton leads in rebounding, and sophomore Kevin Vannatta leads in assists. Sophomore Ahmad Thomas has become a defensive stalwart, and Raekwon Miller, a sophomore who rarely played last year, has stepped off the bench to make a major contribution.

Their rapid development and the season-ending injury for junior David Robertson has led McDevitt to give his young players heavy minutes and to trust them at crunch time, with senior Sam Hughes and junior Will Weeks as steadying influences. Together, they have brought exciting times to Kimmel Arena where the Bulldogs have dominated.

“Before the season, we really didn’t know who was going to play major minutes,” said McDevitt. “We were counting on guys to step up and separate themselves. Confidence is one thing that separates Dylan and Dwayne from most other freshmen – it was evident in the way they carried themselves, the way they worked out, and it has transitioned into their play in the regular season.”

“I knew I could come in here and make an impact,” said Sutton, who has been named Big South Freshman of the Week numerous times. “The coaches believed in me and I could feel myself getting better every day with the workouts they put us through. I had to prove it though and work for it. We kind of battle every day in practice, and I’ve got to continue and keep it up throughout my years here.”

Despite their Bulldog toughness on the court, it was the friendly, family atmosphere of UNC Asheville and the Athletics Department that attracted them. “Some places just want your talent,” said Smith. “But I could see that Assistant Coach Sean Dixon and Coach Nick want me to grow better as a person and as a young man. We talked on the phone almost every day. I’m thankful to be here.” Smith and Sutton say they plan to major in health and wellness promotion, but both say their first semester academic highlight was a political science course taught by Professor Dwight Mullen.

Both Smith and Sutton stand 6-foot-5, which makes them unusually tall for guards at the college level; it is unusual even for an NBA team to start two guards that tall. They’ve always played guard – basketball’s main ball-handling position – but their height is a relatively recent development.

“I grew about four inches going into my freshman year of high school, from about 5-foot-8 to 6-feet and I’ve grown about an inch every year, so starting small helped with my guard skills.” said Sutton. “I feel like I can take my man to the basket whenever I want, but I play in the system we have and get my points within the flow of the offense.”

Smith leads the Bulldogs in 3-pointers. “I used to be too small to shoot 3-pointers well, but as I got bigger and stronger, I was able to have better form and be more consistent. I try to work on my shot every day. I’m trying to work on keeping my body square.”

Sutton and Smith make sight-lines difficult for typically smaller opposing guards, and their rebounding prowess enables McDevitt to play a small, quick frontcourt. The Bulldogs have become an excellent defensive team and typically lead their opponents in points resulting from steals.

Offensively, young players can be inconsistent, as demonstrated in the recent overtime loss at Coastal Carolina where the Bulldogs stayed close despite shooting 5-28 in 3-pointers. And opposing coaches will study film to improve defenses against the new Bulldogs, so stiffer challenges lay ahead.

“Our goal is to win the regular season championship, win the Big South tournament and play in the NCAA tournament,” said McDevitt. “If we’re still the same team in late February as we are now, that won’t do it. We are off to a good start, but there are lots of areas for improvement. That’s the exciting thing, the encouraging thing. We can get better.”






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