2023 Big South Player of the Year Drew Pember returns for a final year with the UNC Asheville Bulldogs.
The UNC Asheville Bulldogs dominated the Big South last year, only falling twice in conference play. Their non-conference efforts included a 2OT win over UCF and a road win over East Tennessee State. They made it to the NCAA Tournament, only to be outmatched by UCLA, 86-53.
Heading into the 2023-24 season, Pember and the Bulldogs are no longer a secret. He’s one of the most fun mid-major players to watch and has a chance to bring them to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2011 and 2012.
This year’s Bulldogs team features a lot of the same players as last year’s squad. Cohesion and a couple of transfer pickups make UNC Asheville an intriguing team to follow.
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Head coach: Mike Morrell (6th season, all at UNC Asheville)
2021-22 record: 27-8 (16-2)
2022 postseason finish: Lost in NCAA Tournament Round of 64 to UCLA
Notable departures: Tajion Jones (Graduated), Alex Caldwell (Graduated)
Notable non-conference games: N/A
PG: Caleb Burgess (6-3, 185, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 4.9 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.0 RPG
SG: Fletcher Abee (6-4, 190, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 41.9 3P%
SF: Jamon Battle (6-5, 207, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 6.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 APG, 55.1 FG%
PF: Nick McMullin (6-8, 237, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.6 APG, 55.4 FG%
C: Drew Pember (6-11, 215, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 21.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.4 BPG, 38.0 3P%
6: Greg Gantt Jr. (6-8, 210, Rs.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 2.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.4 APG (Transfer from NC State)
7: Evan Johnson (5-11, 165, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 9.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.1 RPG (Transfer from Georgia State)
8: Trent Stephney (6-2, 173, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.7 PPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG
9: Josh Banks (6-5, 175, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 2.8 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.2 APG (Transfer from VCU)
UNC Asheville Bulldogs MVP: Drew Pember
It goes without saying how important Drew Pember is to the success of the UNC Asheville Bulldogs. He is a true unicorn at the mid-major level, a dominant big man who can pass and hit threes.
The most unique part about Pember’s game is how different he can play at both ends of the court. On defense, Pember is a versatile shot blocker. He swatted 2.4 shots per game in 2022-23. On offense, Pember has a small forward’s game in a big man’s body. He has touch as far back as from behind the three-point line, which makes him tough to guard in his 6-11 body.
The reigning Big South Player of the Year will probably go back-to-back in that category. Next on his list is leading UNC Asheville past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
UNC Asheville Bulldogs make-or-break player: Greg Gantt Jr.
The NC State transfer has a chance to really elevate the ceiling of this UNC Asheville Bulldogs team. Gantt showed promise in two years at Providence, earning over 20 minutes per game as a sophomore under Ed Cooley. He ended up transferring to NC State, where greener pastures weren’t always that green.
Gantt’s minutes slightly dropped and his role in the offense diminished to next to nothing, attempting only 1.9 shots per game. While scoring has never been his biggest strength, Gantt was primarily used to grab rebounds, which he did do at a high rate.
At UNC Asheville, Gantt could be an energy boost off the bench. While he could vie to start, the Bulldogs bring back four of five starters on last year’s team. Gantt or McMullin might slow things down if one of them had to play the small forward position, next to Pember, who already takes up a lot of the spacing on the floor.
I see Gantt as a key bench piece alongside Georgia State transfer Evan Johnson. The Bulldogs did a good job of getting pieces in the portal and Gantt has the potential to help elevate them to elite mid-major status.
Key analytic: 3P% and opponent 3P%
Perhaps no team in the country lived and died around the three-point line as much as UNC Asheville did last year.
The Bulldogs were 8th in the nation, hitting 38.8% of their threes as a team. It’s important to note that Tajion Jones shot over 44% from behind the arc. Losing him will surely impact how well the Bulldogs perform from outside this year. However, defensively, not much should change. UNC Asheville had the 12th-best 3P% on defense, holding opponents to less than 30% from deep.
Having a versatile big like Drew Pember certainly helps when defending the outside. Battle, McMullin, and now Gantt, all have the length to alter shots. Even if the Bulldogs rely a bit less on shooting threes, defending the three should still be a strong suit.
UNC Asheville Bulldogs 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 1st in Big South
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Round of 32