Game #8-462: High Point Panthers at North Carolina-Asheville BulldogsJanuary 26, 2012 7:00 pm
Just over a year ago in November 2010, I had Thanksgiving dinner with a small group of my family. My cousin Amelia was then a freshman (now sophomore) at UNC Asheville, and I wanted to have a conversation with her that did not start a huge argument. So I asked her what she had been paying attention to how the Bulldogs had started its basketball season.
"Seriously, nobody cares", Amelia said. "I don't know anybody who follows our sports at UNCA. I know we have them, but that's it", and then further emphasized, "Nobody
"No Amelia, just because you and your friends don't care doesn't mean nobody
cares at UNCA about sports," I replied.
Amelia quipped back, "No, seriously. NOBODY CARES! I guess the athletes do because they are on scholarship, but besides that, nobody else talks about it. We even joke about how sports never come up at our school. It's a non-issue really, nobody talks about it."
"Now", my uncle (her dad) replied, "I am sure there are some
who care". But Amelia would not back down. "No really, nobody cares!" I then mentioned that her shirt she was wearing read "UNC Asheville Bulldogs", which she insisted had nothing to do with sports as the Bulldog is primarily thought of as just a school symbol. I even mentioned to her the experiences I had going to the Justice Center as part of a High Point bus trip, where UNCA students were excited to see their team featuring 7-7 Kenny George play. I tried to get her to look at a photo of a packed Justice Center, but she would not look at it as she could not be convinced otherwise about the care level at UNCA.
Now from that photo, you can see that there are in fact people who do
care about sports at UNC Asheville. And the outdated Justice Center you see in the photo has been replaced by Kimmel Arena, located in the modern Sherrill Center (Amelia found the construction of this facility ironic at the time, given her insistence of how little UNCA cares about sports). And despite limited resources, Coach Eddie Biedenbach has made the Bulldogs arguably the second most successful program in the Big South after Winthrop over the past ten years. The Bulldogs last year won the Big South tournament and a P.I.G. in Dayton, which Amelia posted an excited response to on Facebook (which I found ironic considering her insistence of how little UNCA cared). And this year the Bulldogs are the preseason favorite in the Big South, and have played like it as well.
So this past Thanksgiving, I asked Amelia again, considering the success of last season and opening Kimmel Arena with a sellout against UNC Chapel Hill. She reacted favorably to the basketball team, but stopped short of saying that people now cared. She did hope that could change, given the fact that she feels UNCA is a bit lacking in school spirit among its community. But she has not had the time herself to go to any games, including the big one against the Tar Heels. Amelia's belief on why nobody cares is because in Asheville there is far more to do in the mountains of Western North Carolina than go to a basketball game.
So is it true that nobody cares? Obviously not completely in the literal sense, but those who do care are often outweighed by those who do not. The unfortunate problem is this can be found at many of Our Schools. I am sure that at High Point you could find some social groups who would say the same thing about HPU. The past couple weeks I have written recaps about schools that have lagged in caring about their basketball team. USC Upstate
is an example of a school hurt by being a largely commuter school where the students may care about sports but identify with other teams and not their own. Appalachian State
and many other schools (particularly in the Mid-South) neglect basketball in favor of other sports, chiefly American-style football. Not caring about basketball is not a unique problem. All schools do have those who care however, and caring when few do can make for a lonely fan experience.
UNC Asheville has a unique problem among our schools, in that there is a general de-emphasis in intercollegiate athletics. No state funds can be used to fund athletics, so as not to alter the school's mission of serving as the public liberal arts college for North Carolina. Kimmel Arena was constructed as part of the larger Sherrill Center and North Carolina Wellness Center, not to be used specifically for athletics under its funding. In some sports such as baseball, UNC Asheville does not offer the full set of Division I scholarships. When spending can be cut, cuts are made as only outside revenue can be used to fund UNCA athletics. It is similar to how football schools cut back on other sports, but UNCA does not have football. As a result, the school is always towards the bottom of Division I in athletic expenditures. This does not seem to prove to be a sustainable model for Division I sports. Yet the Bulldogs are quite successful. The coaches at UNCA are very competent at maximizing the limited resources they have, and UNCA is largely successful in sports even if few care about them. The Bulldogs may not be at the level of schools like Coastal, Liberty, and Winthrop, but UNC Asheville has as solid an athletic program as anybody else in the Big South.
So it is evident from this that while the majority of the school may not care much for intercollegiate athletics, at least the athletic department does. But UNCA sports can sometimes be set aside even by those who are supposed to manage them. UNCA AD Janet Cone also serves as the chair of the local regional sports council, which sought to raise revenue for the city by bringing in a conference tournament. With the Big South presently a campus site tourney and not committed to any particular location for the future, Asheville was able to net the Southern Conference Tourney. Most of the tournament will be played at the Asheville Civic Center in downtown, but preliminaries for the SoCon women will be played at Kimmel. That includes the quarterfinals to be played on Saturday, March 3.
And that is a big problem, considering the Big South men's championship will be held on that day as well. And the Bulldogs are in first place, which means they should be in position to host it. But Cone had the contract for a women's tournament of another conference, and did not have an easy way out. Cone requested the Big South to let them potentially host at their old venue, the Justice Center with a seating capacity a third of Kimmel Arena. Big South Conference commissioner Kyle Kallander rejected the offer, and forced UNCA to give up hosting rights for the final game even if they were the highest remaining seed. The students and Asheville community who do care were outraged, wearing white to protest the actions of their school. Most fans were not unhappy with the conference, but rather their school which was willing to sell its new arena to another conference. You can read the discussion of this situation (and the school's commitment to athletics) by UNCA fans here
. Earlier this week, Cone was finally successful in convincing the SoCon to move their women's quarterfinals to the Justice Center should UNCA win the right to host the Big South Championship.
Considering the discussions I have had with Amelia and needing to see a new Big South arena (I have seen every other except for Radford and VMI), this was a trip I decided I had to make even with Asheville being a 200 miles away from where I live, my longest trip mileage wise this season with the exception of my Christmas trip. And this would also complete the Big South on the conference team checklist for the 800 Games Project. Looking at the map on the front page, the Appalachians seem to have very few games recapped. Schools like Radford, East Tennessee State, Western Carolina, and Appalachian State have also not been recapped. This suggests that the whole region might have a bit of a caring lag as well, whether because of less interest in basketball or sports in general aside from outdoor mountain activities.
I got to Asheville around 5:30 PM during rush hour, which is aggravated by the mountains hindering traffic. No road goes straight and traffic patterns are to a large extent unusual. Finding parking was difficult around Kimmel, although I was able to identify a couple parking decks next to Kimmel that during the day serve commuter students. I managed to get a space before it was barricaded as UNCA was setting to charge $5 to park (very pricey for mid-major basketball, but that is how an underfunded program can sustain itself). Fortunately, the parking staff had no problem with me getting there early and not paying. I then bought my ticket and was let in, even with gates not set to open for another ten minutes. I do appreciate the friendliness of the UNCA staff, which has carried over from the Justice Center. You will never get treatment that laid back in most arenas these days.
Tonight UNC Asheville was playing High Point, hence why I selected tonight as my time to visit the new Kimmel Arena. Despite HPU being in a four-game losing skid, I came anyway as the main purpose of my trip was to see Asheville and its new arena. Kimmel was half full tonight with 1,500. Partly because of the UNC game and partly due to increased season ticket sales, the Bulldogs lead the Big South in attendance (also in part because Winthrop and Liberty are way down in attendance right now as well). A new arena brings in more people, as this phenomenon has been particularly prevalent in baseball in recent years. But what I was interested to see from the crowd was the students, given my conversations with Amelia. There were about 500 student seats equally divided between both sides of the court, with about 300 students in them. The majority of these students usually came as part of a certain group. As I saw at Upstate Monday, the athletes of other teams are usually the most supportive of the basketball team at many schools. They know what it's like to play for the Bulldogs and support all of their fellow student athletes. Then you had, in addition, some of UNCA's small Greek organizations as well as the pep band. These groups seemed to account for the majority of the students in attendance. As I expected, it was obvious that some
students cared. But those who cared were from various subsets of different students that do not make up the majority of the student body. It seemed to be a bit clickish, and I am not sure if I was a student I would want to be a part of that. But as Amelia says, "Asheville is not for everyone".
As for the game, it was mostly what I expected. High Point led most of the early part of the game, making shots and forcing turnovers. I was hoping that HPU could be like my grad school South Carolina the previous night and manage to hold on and get an unexpected win. But the Bulldogs' J.P. Primm got open for shots and never seemed to miss. UNCA went up by four at halftime, and the Panthers still don't have the defense needed to win big games. UNCA kept getting shots as the Panthers resorted to a physical game, which on the road always ends with excessive fouls being called. Missed free throws also cost HPU in chances to stay close late in the game. Frustration finally boiled over with just over three minutes left when Coach Scott Cherry and point guard Xavier Martin were both called for technical fouls after a no-call on what appeared to be a Bulldog foul. Primm made all four free throws to extend the lead from 12 to 16, and UNC Asheville would wind up with a 90-70 victory. The Bulldogs are one step closer to hosting the conference tournament, now finally with assurance that they could play at Kimmel for the chance to go back to the NCAA Tournament.
UNC Asheville will always be a liberal arts college first and will never be associated with big-time athletics. But that is also the case with many of the schools in Our Game, and these schools need the most support. Hopefully more will care about Bulldog basketball, and not just a small number of subsets within the student body. Maybe if UNC Asheville can maintain its current success, Amelia will feel positive about the school spirit and begin to care about UNCA athletics. Maybe.