Picked seventh in the preseason Big South coaches poll, I don't think anyone expected the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs (2-1) to get off to this kind of start. Second year head coach Tim Craft, who took over for Butler's current interim head coach Chris Holtmann last summer, has notched two impressive wins already and has his team playing with a chance to reach the Paradise Jam title game after upsetting Clemson. The surprise win came by way of a Chris Webber-esque technical being issued after the Tigers tried to call timeout when having none left.
Overlooked by many this offseason, including myself, Gardner-Webb is benefiting from an up tempo approach that features a lot of experienced players. 9 of Tim Craft's 13 scholarship players are juniors or seniors, making GWU the 31st-oldest team in the country despite losing two key cogs in junior Donta Harper (transfer) and senior Naji Hibbert from last season's squad.
Senior point guard Tyler Strange leads the attack and has dished out 25 assists over his first three games, including 10 against Clemson on Friday. Playing alongside Strange is senior shooting guard Jarvis Davis, who is GWU's main threat from outside the arc (11-22) so far this season. Davis is also lights out from the free throw line over his college career (58-62, 94%), making him a dual threat. Junior college transfer Harold McBride (6.3 ppg) is the first guard off of Craft's bench.
Playing the majority of minutes at the three this season is 6-foot-5 junior Adonis Burbage, who is spelled by outside shooter Isaiah Ivey in a smaller lineup at times. Burbage, who averaged 10.3 ppg at Central Connecticut State in 2012-13, provides more length and grit to a small (345th in average height) Gardner-Webb team.
In the frontcourt is 6-foot-5 junior Jerome Hill, who plays as an undersized power forward. Hill led GWU in both scoring and rebounding last season (14.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and is currently doing so again in scoring (17.7 ppg) after pouring in 25 points in a loss to LSU in their opener. Hill plays next to budding 6-foot-7 sophomore Tyrell Nelson, who anchors GWU in the paint. Nelson has scored in double figures in each of the Runnin' Bulldogs first three games and has collected 7.7 rpg, including nine offensive rebounds in his last two games.
Due to being one of the shortest teams in the country, Gardner-Webb has looked to push the pace, resulting in the 70th-fastest tempo thus far. GWU scored 82 and 80 on the road against LSU in a loss and College of Charleston, respectively. After putting up 72 against Clemson on Friday, the Runnin' Bulldog's offensive efficiency is sitting at 134th in the country. Tim Craft's bench rotation is in flux with Isaiah Ivey missing the team's first two games, but he generally only uses two players off his bench, with guards Harold McBride and Dylan Poston also in the mix. 6-foot-8 senior Corey Hensley has seen a few reserve minutes as a forward.
Three things to watch for:
How will Seton Hall fare against the best offensive team they've faced yet? If Kevin Willard and Seton Hall decide to attack Gardner-Webb and push the tempo early like they did against Nevada, this may be a high scoring affair. If the Hall opts to try and pump the brakes on GWU's up-tempo approach, it will be interesting to see how the two styles conflict. Despite some of the early tempo talk, Seton Hall hasn't actually played that fast (260th), which is slower than any team Willard has ever had, though it's still early in the season. Mercer simply wasn't a dangerous team on offense, while Nevada was a bit better but Seton Hall's game plan worked well for much of the game.
Battle of the veterans. Gardner-Webb has considerably more Division I experience than Seton Hall, which will play to their advantage. Senior point guard Tyler Strange is a huge weapon on offense and will most likely butt heads with Sterling Gibbs, creating a mouth-watering point guard duel. Gibbs outplayed Bryce Cotton for most of the New Year's Eve clash last season, but Strange gets his teammates involved a bit more than Cotton did, which will require a collective effort on defense, especially keeping an eye on sharpshooter Jarvis Davis.
Junior Jerome Hill will also need to be matched up with, and Isaiah Whitehead might get that task as he roughly plays the three for Seton Hall. It will be a tough ask for Whitehead to guard Gardner-Webb's top scorer as Isaiah is likely focusing on turning things around offensively (7-30 fg, 18 pts, 7 asts, 10 TOs including Caldwell). Khadeen Carrington displayed some theft-like abilities against Nevada, but he might be undersized compared to 6-foot-5 Hill.
Paint advantage. As has been the case so far this season, Seton Hall again has the better frontcourt on paper going into this game. Tyrell Nelson is probably the toughest task for Angel Delgado thus far, especially on the boards, but at 6-foot-7 he is undersized, which should play into a mobile Delgado's hands. Further, Nelson doesn't get much support, while Delgado has a match up nightmare in Brandon Mobley at his side and an improving Rashed Anthony off the bench for defensive purposes. I'm curious to see if Mobley is coaxed to play a bit more inside since he should have a few inches of height over his defender.
KenPom says: No. 73 Seton Hall - 71, No. 175 Gardner-Webb - 65 (74%)
Projected Gardner-Webb starters:
PG - Tyler Strange (14.7 ppg, 8.3 apg)
G - Jarvis Davis (14.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.3 spg)
G/F - Jerome Hill (17.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 2.7 apg)
F - Adonis Burbage (3.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
F - Tyrell Nelson (15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Time: 6pm ET, Sunday
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 970 AM WNYM
Opening line: Seton Hall -6