Preview: UNC Asheville Bulldogs at #7 Ohio State Buckeyes

Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

The out of conference schedule rolls along when the Big South's UNC Asheville Bulldogs visit Columbus to face the Buckeyes.

If you're looking at the schedule and thinking "wait, why does UNC Asheville sound familiar?", you aren't crazy. The Bulldogs have been a fairly regular early season opponent for the Buckeyes. These squads last tussled in the 2010-2011 season, when Ohio State crushed the Bulldogs 96-49 behind 29 points from David Lighty, and 13 points and 8 boards in only 21 minutes from a certain Deshaun Thomas. They played again in the 2008-2009 season, with the Buckeyes the blowout victors again, 83-59. BJ Mullens (remember him?) was the dominant player in one of his few memorable games as a Buckeye, going 19 and 8 with 3 blocks.

But all of that was then, and this, as they say, is now. The Bulldogs sit at 3-6 on the year, a record that is actually inflated by their recent victories over an NAIA school, and a tussle with D2 Lenoir Rhyne, a game that was neck and neck until the last 8 minutes or so. Asheville has hung tough against a few solid teams this season, only losing by 2 against NC State, 5 against Providence and 7 against Tennessee. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades though, and despite their valiant efforts, the Bulldogs can count a 10 point victory over Western Carolina as their only D1 victory. Not every one of those losses was against some great basketball powerhouse either. UNC Asheville lost a game to something called a South Carolina Upstate. Yikes.

Despite not having a great record so far, UNC Asheville does have some solid players. They are paced by their senior forward Jeremy Atkinson, who leads the team in scoring at 18.1 ppg, rebounding at 7.9, and steals at 2.2 per game. Atkinson isn't especially large (6-4), and he isn't a great three point shooter, but he's crafty around the basket, takes good shots, and gets to the free throw line. He tossed in 28 points and 5 steals against a good NC State team, and will absolutely be somebody the Buckeyes have to account for.

Junior (and Waterford Ohio native) DJ Cunningham joins Atkinson in the frontcourt. He's not nearly as polished an offensive weapon as Atkinson (8.8 ppg, only 37% field goal shooting), but he provides sorely needed size (6-10), and shot blocking ability (2.4 bpg). Cunningham isn't an exceptional rebounder and has struggled a little with foul trouble this season, but he's still a presence that can redirect shots and cause a hassle down low. Senior Jon Nwannunu (6-8) will also see time in the big man rotation. He's disciplined in his shot selection and is one of the team's better rebounders at nearly 5 a game. Freshman Will Weeks rounds out the regular forward rotation, and provides a similar look to Nwannunu. He'll take higher percentage shots and rebound, although he doesn't have the free throw ability that Nwannunu has.

The key guard for the Bulldogs is 6-4 sophomore Keith Hornsby. He's second on the team in scoring at 12.1 ppg, and second with assists at 3.1. Hornsby loves to shoot the ball from deep, hitting his threes at a 46% clip. When he gets hot he can be a very prolific scorer (he's had three 20 point games already), but has struggled to be efficient when his threeball isn't falling.

Joining him in the backcourt is 6-3 junior Trent Meyer, who also averages double digit scoring (11.6 ppg) and a team leading 3.9 assists per game. Like Hornsby, Meyer loves to shoot threes, although he isn't as efficient at them (32% from three point range this season). Meyer's offense game revolves around the three point shot to a much larger extent than Hornsby, as Meyer doesn't have the same ability to take the ball to the basket. He's also shown a similar boom or bust production cycle. When he's hitting his threes, he can score in bunches (20 against Providence, 23 against USC-Upstate), but if the shot isn't falling, he's more of a non-factor.

Marcus Neely is the 3rd guard, averaging a 2.2 points and 2.2 boards in 17 min of action a night, a number slightly inflated by his longer stints against non D1 competition. Should anybody get into major foul trouble, freshman Sam Hughes (6-4) may see action.

UNC Asheville will present a very different look than Savannah State, OSU's previous opponent. Unlike Savannah, the Bulldogs have a little bit of size in their backcourt, and have multiple players who can hurt you offensively, especially if the Buckeyes allow Hornsby or Meyer to get comfortable shooting three pointers. The Bulldogs aren't a very good defensive team though. KenPom has their adjusted defensive rank at 177th in the country, and their 253rd in opponent field goal percentage.

Final thoughts

That's not a good weakness to have when you're facing one of the most prolific scorers in the entire country in DeShaun Thomas. Ohio State is more than equipped to win a track meet if that's what the Bulldogs want, and have the size in the front court to wear UNC Asheville down repeatedly. If Cunningham gets into foul trouble, the Bulldogs are suddenly very small, leaving lots of room for Thomas, Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel to get to work.

Prediction?

Holy Diver. The Bulldogs have the pieces to make things interesting for a while, but it would take them catching NBA Jam-esque levels on "on fire" from three, and significant off games from OSU's star players for them to spring the upset. Aaron Craft starts to get a little confidence back on offense, and the Buckeyes roll the Bulldogs again, 88-64.

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