No. 15 Hokies try to weave their way around Gardner-Webb
What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Gardner-Webb basketball?
If you follow college hoops, chances are you remember the 2007 smackdown of Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Gardner-Webb won by 16 points in Billy Gillispie's second game as UK coach, initiating the chain of events that led to John Calipari taking over in Lexington two short years later.
Something you might not know about Gardner-Webb, the small school from Boiling Springs, N.C.: Chris Holtmann -- yes, that guy -- coached the Runnin' Bulldogs before moving to Butler and then Ohio State. Since Gardner-Webb became a Division I program in 2002, no GWU coach has won more games in a season than Holtmann (21) in 2012-2013.
Gardner-Webb has left a few modest-size imprints on college basketball in 16 years of D-I competition. The school's next step under sixth-year head coach Tim Craft, who was Holtmann's successor: Make the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
Can the Runnin' Bulldogs do this? Maybe. They received a first-place vote in the preseason Big South media poll. The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook picked them to finish second in the league.
Gardner-Webb is led by redshirt senior wing David Efianayi. He is the team's leading returning scorer from last season (17.5 points per game). How the supporting cast comes together around him will be one of the foremost questions facing the Runnin' Bulldogs this season.
Pace on offense and positioning on defense will be this team's priorities.
Efianayi told Jacob Conley of the Shelby (N.C.) Star, "We are not Virginia. When we get the ball, we are going to go."
Craft told Conley, "We are a little undersized this season, but we are so athletic and quick I think we can make up for it."
In the season opener at Virginia Commonwealth on Tuesday, that didn't happen.
Gardner-Webb's half-court defense was more than good enough to win. It forced 20 VCU turnovers and limited the Rams to 30 percent shooting (7 of 23) from 3-point range. Half-court offense and rebounding hurt the Runnin' Bulldogs, however. Their lack of size came back to bite them.
Gardner-Webb committed 21 turnovers, hit under 39 percent of its shots (20 of 52), missed eight free throws (out of 20), and gave up 17 offensive boards to VCU. The lack of size Craft pointed to became a factor.
Now GWU's attention turns to No. 15 Virginia Tech on Friday.
The Hokies will be playing their season opener under a cloud of uncertainty. Forward Chris Clarke was suspended indefinitely a week ago -- no reason was provided for the suspension.
This is viewed as an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, and more precisely, a team that can win games in the Big Dance. Virginia Tech has won just two NCAA Tournament games since 1980, one since 1996, and none under head coach Buzz Williams. Consecutive NCAA appearances the past two seasons show how far the program has come, but now the team is expected to generate even more Buzz under Williams, and that means advancing in a March bracket.
Williams was candid in acknowledging the disruptive nature of the Clarke suspension:
"We've practiced twice (since the suspension) and then (played) today, so we don't have an answer," Williams told Mark Berman of Roanoke.com, "but I think our guys have handled it all very well thus far. I don't think you can lose someone of that stature and not (have) everybody absorb the role, absorb the numbers, absorb the minutes."
Point guard Justin Robinson scored 20 points in an exhibition charity game against Liberty this past Sunday. He cited an urgent need that Gardner-Webb can identify with:
"Guards have to rebound more," Robinson said. "We have to take up space. That's going to determine what's going to happen with our season."
So there you have it. Gardner-Webb is undersized, and its inability to protect the defensive backboard was exposed in its season opener. Virginia Tech's roster has been challenged and its depth has been tested. The Hokies need to protect the defensive backboard in this upcoming season opener.
This is a battle between the Runnin' Bulldogs and the Hokies, but more precisely, it is a battle of the boards in Blacksburg.
Updated November 8, 2018