Morrell looks for Asheville program to continue improvement

Jeff Birchfield • May 11, 2020 at 10:00 AM

The youth movement is trending upward for UNC Asheville basketball coach Mike Morrell.

After his Bulldogs won four games in his first season as head coach, they went 15-16 during the 2019-20 season. The former Elizabethton High School and Milligan College standout pointed to his young team growing up.

“We were the youngest team in the country my first year. Last season, we had the opportunity to grow up,” Morrell said. “We had a couple of guys become eligible and we had a year to build the program. We were proud to get to 15 wins and show that much progress, but 15 is not the goal.

“We want to win a Big South championship and we feel we’re on the way to doing that. Having the opportunity to grow up and to have success, you can’t teach experience.”

Picked last in the Big South Conference, the Bulldogs finished fifth at 8-10 in league play. Morrell knows his team won’t be sneaking up on anyone now. However, they do have the top six scorers on last season’s team returning, starting with guards DeVon Baker and LJ Thorpe, who combined to average over 30 points per game.

“Obviously, the next jump for us is the hardest one,” Morrell said. “We were picked ninth in the league and finished fifth. There are obviously going to be more expectations for us. I don’t care where we’re picked. That’s the toughest jump when people expect you to win and going out and doing it.”

Morrell has done well with East Tennessee players as Oak Ridge’s Tajion Jones averaged 13.7 points per game and Trent Stephney, a freshman from Knox Bearden’s 2019 state championship team, played in all 31 games. In addition, Luke Lawson from Coeburn, Va., appeared in 13 games. He will redshirt this season and concentrate on becoming stronger.

While Morrell has been an assistant coach, including at King to George Pitts and at Power 5 schools Clemson and Texas, he’s learned there is quite an adjustment to the role of head coach.

“That’s a three-day conversation going from having all kinds of suggestions to making every decision,” Morrell said. “Coach (Shaka) Smart used to tell me as an assistant ‘you’re not always right, but you’re always sure.’ Now I have to be the one to make those decisions.”

An often-asked question is about starting a series with East Tennessee State with the schools located 58 miles apart. Morrell is open to playing the Bucs, feeling it would add to the non-conference schedule in the same way the current rivalry with Western Carolina does.

“It’s a good series, close and regional,” Morrell said. “Anytime you can create regional rivalries, it’s good for your program. We had a game with Western, we lost by one (78-77) and those are the most fun games. They’re challenging, but great getting your team ready for league play. Those type of games help you learn what it takes to compete for a league championship.”

His ties to the area and especially his hometown remain strong. He and current Las Vegas Raiders tight end Jason Witten remain extremely close friends, and Morrell was thrilled to see Witten’s brothers, Shawn and Ryan, coach the Cyclones to the 2019 TSSAA Class 4A football state championship.

“The first person I thought of was probably how proud coach (Dave) Rider was and how close he had been. To watch Shawn’s team win it, I know he had to be beaming with pride and joy,” Morrell said. “Anytime something good can happen for Elizabethton, I’m happy. It’s great for the town.

“It’s something our hometown has always taken a tremendous amount of pride in. Obviously, I wasn’t able to go to the game, but I saw the photos of how well the fans traveled. It shows what a special place Elizabethton is.”

Sports provided the bond with the Witten brothers and other teammates, whom Morrell pointed out have been successful in other ventures. Now making his living in sports, Morrell keeps the focus on the tasks at hand instead of looking too far into the future.

“Our goal is to win the Big South championship and play in the NCAA tournament,” Morrell said. “That’s the goal next year, three years down the road. That goal doesn’t change. My goal for our program is to be better tomorrow than we are today, and to be better today than we were yesterday.

“That’s a goal that’s harder than people think. But, the expectations are clear. Asheville has a great tradition and we are expected to compete for championships. We had a recruiting class this year that we’re really excited about and we have the opportunity to do that now.”

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