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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
"Our program has grown quickly since moving up to the Division I level in 2000, but to have the chance to open what we expect to be a successful season on the defending national champions' home court is truly exciting," coach Rick Scruggs said. "Our players, students and fans will be buzzing about this game until the ball goes up on Nov. 19. It doesn't get any bigger for our program, or university, than this."
For Gardner-Webb, this season is a silver lining around the dark cloud of NCAA sanctions that hangs over the university after an investigation two years ago. Although the school had to endure postseason ineligibility two years ago and still faces recruiting restrictions and one less scholarship, the Bulldogs came together last season.
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Fighting through the adversity, a group with two new starters gelled into one of the top teams in the A-Sun, claiming the regular-season championship, racking up 18 wins and coming up one game short of an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Now the buzz is growing. With all five starters returning from last year's team, expectations are high, and the players are hungry.
"We fell one game shy of that goal last year and our kids are dead set on making a run at both the regular season and tournament titles," Scruggs said.
Gardner-Webb seems to be in a good position to do just that. Returning to the floor this year will be 89 percent of last year's scoring and rebounding. The Bulldogs only lost four players, all of them reserves.
Brian Bender (15.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Simon Conn (14.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg) teamed up to dominate down low last year, and there is no reason to believe the two won't feast on opponents again this season.
Bender, a 6-6, 205-pound senior, had a great year at power forward last season. Not only did he connect on more than 34 percent of his three-point attempts, Bender also got to the rim and drew contact with regularity. The other thing he did with frequency was hit his free throws, making opposing defenses pay to the tune of 82 percent from the free-throw line.
Conn, a senior center, patrols the paint with a wingspan his coach describes as "freakish." Although he is only 6-9, Conn possesses a 7-2 wingspan, allowing him to play much larger than his height. The result last season was a team leading 40 blocked shots and more than seven rebounds per game.
At 250 pounds, Conn has the bulk to body up to anyone in the conference. With another year of experience behind them, the numbers could be better this year for both players, bad news for a conference that lacks size.
As for the backcourt, a pair of seniors will also lead the way. Tim Jennings (12.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and T.J. McCullough (6.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 4.2 rpg) were very productive as starters last season, and they are back for more this year.
Jennings, 6-3, stepped up as a consistent scoring threat in the backcourt. He made 33 percent of his three-point shots and was also a threat on defense, leading the team with 78 steals. Jennings will have to cut down on mistakes to be even more effective. He turned the ball over 99 times last season, the most of anyone on the team.
McCullough, on the other hand, took good care of the ball. The 6-1 senior handed out a team-high 140 assists last season while turning the ball over only 74 times. A 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio will be work fine again this season as long as McCullough gets the ball to the scorers as often as he did a year ago.
Rounding out the starting lineup will be junior guard Chris Gash (9.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg). The 6-4 wing made a big splash as a sophomore, making 33 percent of his three-point shots. Sixty of his rebounds were on the offensive end, allowing the Bulldogs plenty of second-chance points. At 210 pounds, his physicality at the guard position coupled with a year in the starting lineup should mean more production.
As for the returning depth, there are four players back who saw action last season. Senior guard Bret Noonan (2.7 ppg, 0.9 rpg), senior center Mike Jones (3.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and sophomore forwards Clint Graham (1.0 ppg) and Jake Didion (1.1 ppg) return in backup roles.
Noonan, at 6-3, 205 pounds, provides size and experience in the backcourt. Jones, at 6-7, 225 pounds, does the same in the frontcourt. Graham, at 6-9, and Didion, at 6-7, will both have another season to learn from two of the best in the conference before earning big minutes next year.
There will be three newcomers on the roster for Bulldogs this season, and two of them are true freshmen.
The one exception is Ed Moore (10.0 ppg at Tyler Junior College in Texas). Moore, 6-1, has shown the ability to fill it up in the past. Moore once scored 53 points in a high school game.
The Bulldogs signed two more guards, Takayo Siddle (8.0 ppg, 3.0 apg at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia) and Ricky McPhee (25.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg at Parkview High School in Atlanta).
Siddle, a 5-11 freshman, will offer some depth at the point guard spot. He has shown the ability to score in the past, and he is also a strong ball handler. McPhee is a deadly outside shooter.
It will be a trial by fire early in the season for a team that looks focused on snagging the A-Sun's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"It will not be easy in our league, but these nonconference games early will do nothing but prepare our guys for the rigors of playing on the road in the conference," Scruggs said.
Stops at North Carolina, Auburn, Minnesota and Ohio State would be a concern for some programs, but a veteran team like Gardner-Webb should use the adverse challenges to sharpen up for the meat of the conference schedule.
A-Sun teams should be forewarned. Gardner-Webb is on a mission this season, and the team has all the pieces in place to accomplish its goal of winning the regular season and league tournament titles. Only a handful of teams have the firepower to derail the Bulldogs, so don't be surprised if Gardner-Webb leaves Johnson City, Tenn., site of the A-Sun Tournament, in March with an automatic NCAA bid in tow.
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