ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The UNC Asheville men's basketball team hopes to keep a great thing going in the 2012-13 season. The Bulldogs begin practice for the upcoming year tonight at 6 p.m. at Kimmel Arena.
The Blue & White will play an exhibition game against Brevard College at Kimmel on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. and then open the season at home against mountain rival Western Carolina on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
Asheville is enjoying a golden era in its program's history as the Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back Big South Conference championships.
Much was expected from last year's club and that team delivered. Asheville finished with a school-record 24-10 mark, won the Big South regular-season title with a league-tying 16-2 mark and captured the league tournament on its home floor at Kimmel Arena.
The Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and came incredibly close to defeating top-seeded Syracuse in the East Regional. Asheville fell 72-65 in a game that was talked about nationally for weeks afterward.
But a new season and different challenges await this year's Bulldog squad. Asheville won't be the preseason favorite this year to win the league crown as the Bulldogs must replace four starters, including one of best backcourts in league history in J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey.
"This is a new year, and we've got a lot of work to do," explained Asheville head coach Eddie Biedenbach. "You just don't replace players like J.P. Primm, Matt Dickey, Chris Stephenson and Quinard Jackson. Those guys played from their freshman year to the end of their senior seasons. That's a lot of experience.
"However, we have a good group returning that knows what you have to do to have a successful season," added Biedenbach. "We'll have a little different team this year but we've got a chance to be a pretty good club before the year is over. We've got size up front, guards that learned under Primm and Dickey plus a talented freshman class that is ready to make an impact right away."
Asheville's biggest question mark this year is in the backcourt. J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey have left their names all over the Bulldog record book and will be remembered by Asheville fans forever.
But the cupboard isn't bare in the backcourt. Asheville returns some key role players from a year ago. Those players will have bigger roles this year.
Junior guard Trent Meyer showed considerable improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore campaign. Meyer averaged 2.1 points per game and dished out 31 assists. He knocked down 10 three-pointers during the year and had some key baskets for Asheville in the Big South Tournament.
"Trent is a talented and athletic, heady guard," stated Biedenbach. "He was a terrific back-up to Matt and J.P. the past two years. We need him to take the next step this season in his development. Trent just needs to play in games like he does in practice."
Sophomore Keith Hornsby played in all 34 games for Asheville as a freshman. He averaged 4.0 points per game and gave the Bulldogs some energy off the bench.
"Keith is one of the most athletic and electrifying players I've ever coached," said Biedenbach. "He's gotten stronger, and that will help him this season. We just need Keith to get more game experience so he can help us."
Corey Littlejohn, a 6-3 sophomore, didn't play much last year but will have a bigger role this season.
"We really need Corey to fill a role in the backcourt for us to be successful," admitted Biedenbach. "He has some real athletic ability and is sneaky quick."
Freshman Zack Davis is a 6-3 guard from Charlotte who played for former NBA star Muggsy Bogues at United Faith.
"We believe Zack has the size and the ability to help solidify our backcourt," stated Biedenbach. "He's a talented player who is used to playing against great competition."
Junior Josh Seligson is a walk-on who has been a part of the Bulldog program for the past two seasons. He played in 10 games last year.
"Josh is a tough and strong big guard that has been an integral part of our team during his career," commented Biedenbach. "He's the ultimate team player."
Freshman Drew Combs is another walk-on to the Bulldog team. The 5-10 guard played at Ashley HS in Wilmington, N.C.
"We're looking for Drew to help us at some point this season," declared Biedenbach. "He's a tough and capable guard who enjoyed great success in high school."
The Bulldogs return some talent in a frontcourt that could do some real damage to opponents this season.
Start with 6-4 senior Jaron Lane. The Greenville, N.C. native averaged 11.3 points per game and shot .575 (100-of-174) from the field. He also grabbed 4.1 rebounds per game and shot .792 from the free throw line. Lane was at his best against some of Asheville's toughest opponents with 21 points against UNC Chapel Hill and 16 vs. Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're a little concerned with Jaron as he's coming off a couple of summer injuries," admitted Biedenbach. "We need Jaron to regain his sparkling play in the second half of the season. At times last year, he was our best player on the floor. We're expecting big things from Jaron this year as we need him to have a great year for us to continue our success."
Asheville's lone returning starter this year is 6-4 senior power forward Jeremy Atkinson. He enjoyed a tremendous year for the Bulldogs as he moved into the starting lineup early in the season and never left. Atkinson averaged 12.3 points and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds per game. He shot .546 (136-of-249) from the field with 57 assists. The Elm City, N.C. native landed a spot on the Big South All-Tournament team and was also named to league's preseason All-Conference second team.
"Jeremy gave last year's team the boost it needed for us to win the tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament," stated Biedenbach. "We're counting on him to be our toughest player inside and to give us what he did last year. Jeremy is an outstanding young man who will be a leader on this team."
Senior Jon Nwannunu is a 6-8 forward who had a knee injury two years ago and has had to work hard to come back. He played some last season, averaging 2.7 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. His role will be expanded this season.
"Jon is one of our most improved players from last year to this season," declared Biedenbach. "He's worked very hard, and we're really going to be counting on him this year. Jon has a nice shooting touch, and he's not afraid to mix it up inside."
The Bulldogs believe they have some talented freshmen ready to compete in the frontcourt.
Sam Hughes, a 6-4 forward from Battleboro, N.C., played at Greenfield School.
"Sam is definitely one of our freshmen who we expect to help us out this season," said Biedenbach. "He's a high-quality athlete and player who will log minutes for us during the year."
Will Weeks played at nearby national prep power Christ School in Arden. The 6-6 forward is from Charlotte and could earn some early playing time.
"You can just tell that Will Weeks knows how to play the game," declared Biedenbach. "He has big-man size but excellent quickness. I really think Will can help us right away this season."
Mike Bedulskis is a 6-9 rookie forward from Vilnius, Lithuania who attended The Phelps School in Philadelphia.
"Mike is a mature freshman with size who can shoot the ball," stated Biedenbach. "He is a fundamentally sound player who should help us immediately."
Alex Biggerstaff is a 6-4 walk-on forward from Mountain Heritage HS in nearby Burnsville.
"We like having Alex on our team. He's a local product who is adjusting to the college game," said Biedenbach. "Alex is a hard worker, and he'll provide depth inside."
Asheville welcomes back 6-10 junior D.J. Cunningham to the team this season. Cunningham red-shirted last year after suffering a knee injury in the summer of 2011. The Waterford, Ohio native showed some great skills his freshman and sophomore years. Cunningham averaged 8.6 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game two seasons ago.
"D.J. has seemed to recover from his knee injury and is ready to go," stated Biedenbach. "He has the size and ability to compete with the non-conference teams we play. D.J. will be an important player for us this season. We need him to have a good year."
Jaleel Roberts is Asheville's tallest player at 7-0. He got a little playing time last year and showed a lot of potential. That potential could be tapped into this season.
"Jaleel is the most improved player we have on our team," explained Biedenbach. "He's made great strides from his freshman year to his sophomore year. Jaleel is a player with size and mobility and could make an impact this season."