Scott Fowler

Can UNC Asheville climb the NCAA mountain?

UNC Asheville’s Sam Hughes (31) lifts coach Nick McDevitt into the air after the Bulldogs clinched an NCAA tournament bid by winning the Big South championship over Winthrop in Buies Creek, N.C. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. UNC Asheville faces Villanova in a first-round NCAA tournament game Friday.
UNC Asheville’s Sam Hughes (31) lifts coach Nick McDevitt into the air after the Bulldogs clinched an NCAA tournament bid by winning the Big South championship over Winthrop in Buies Creek, N.C. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. UNC Asheville faces Villanova in a first-round NCAA tournament game Friday. AP

Want to find an underdog to cheer for in the first round of the NCAA tournament?

I’ve got one for you – UNC Asheville.

The 15th-seeded Bulldogs are 15-point underdogs Friday against No. 2 Villanova. In a season where teams like Davidson, Charlotte, Winthrop, Wofford and South Carolina did not make the 68-team men’s basketball field, UNC Asheville is the closest college to Charlotte among the four NCAA qualifiers from the Carolinas.

“I think a lot of folks enjoy rooting for the underdog, and certainly in this game, that’s who we will be,” UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt told me Monday in a phone interview. “If we’re fortunate enough to hang around for a while, I think we’ll gain some fans.”

It would be very difficult for UNC Asheville to beat Villanova, a 29-5 team that nearly obtained a No. 1 seed. But the Bulldogs – whose Friday game tips off at 12:30 p.m. (truTV) in Brooklyn, N.Y. – have overcome long odds already to get here.

Picked seventh in the Big South preseason poll, UNC Asheville finished tied for third in the regular season and then won the tournament final over Winthrop earlier this month.

The Bulldogs (22-11) are led by McDevitt, who is an anomaly in an age where college coaches often jump from one job to another to get ahead.

McDevitt is a homegrown mountain man. He played high school basketball 20 minutes away from the UNC Asheville campus at Madison High in Marshall, N.C. Then he played as a backup guard at UNC Asheville from 1997-2001. Then he was an assistant under head coach Eddie Biedenbach for the next 12 seasons. And then he took over as UNC Asheville’s head coach in 2013.

All told, McDevitt, 36, has spent the past 19 years on the picturesque Asheville campus. And his family roots go even deeper than that.

“Along with myself, my Dad, my uncle and my sister are all UNC Asheville grads,” McDevitt said. “When they were in high school, my Mom and Dad would go on dates to UNC Asheville basketball games. So the school means a lot to me personally, and to my family as well.”

No starter taller than 6-5

As for McDevitt’s team, it’s a bunch of no-names, and I mean that as a compliment.

UNC Asheville is one of those undersized teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The Bulldogs didn’t have a single player make first- or second-team all-Big South. But their five starters all average between 10.9 and 13.5 points per game.

And UNC Asheville plays defense relentlessly. It finished top 10 in the NCAA in both steals (9.3 per game) and three-point defense (foes shot an abysmal 28.4 percent from beyond the arc). Among its best wins this season: a road victory at Georgetown.

“All of our starters are between 6-2 and 6-5,” McDevitt said. “Two of our guards are taller than our two post players. But we’re versatile, we share the ball and the guys enjoy playing with each other.”

Selection Sunday was a blast of festivity for the entire Asheville campus. Early Sunday afternoon on campus, the UNC Asheville women’s team qualified for its own NCAA tournament with a double-overtime win over Liberty in the Big South final. The men’s team attended that game, stormed the floor to celebrate with the women’s squad and then walked to another building on campus to get the news that it would play Villanova Friday.

In 2012, an incredible ‘almost’

This is UNC Asheville’s fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament. You may remember its third. In 2012, UNC Asheville nearly became the first No. 16 seed ever to knock off a No. 1 seed.

Leading for much of the game against Syracuse, the Bulldogs were down by three points with 35 seconds left when a Syracuse player clearly touched the ball last before fumbling it out of bounds on an in-bounds pass. Syracuse, however, was awarded the ball and ultimately won, 72-65.

After the game, the NCAA director of officiating said on TV that the ball should have been awarded to UNC Asheville on the controversial play. However, it wasn’t reviewed on-court. No. 1 seeds are now 124-0 against No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

No. 15 seeds have not fared much better against No. 2’s, with the No. 2 seeds going 117-7 overall. For UNC Asheville to upset Villanova, McDevitt said, the Bulldogs will have to “keep Villanova from hitting 15 threes” and mix up its defenses enough to keep a more athletic and bigger Villanova team off-balance.

Is it a long shot? Absolutely. But that’s what the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is about.

UNC Asheville has a mountain to climb Friday. But anyone from Asheville knows how to do that.

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