BOILING SPRINGS – Gardner-Webb men’s basketball tipped off the 2017-2018 preseason on Friday, hitting the court for the first official day of practice.
The squeak of sneakers filled Paul Porter Arena at 12:15 pm, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs went through drills for two-plus hours in preparation for a promising season.
Gardner-Webb returns three starters and 86.7 percent of its roster (13 letterwinners) from a team that finished with 19 wins, finished fourth in the regular season and advanced to the Big South Conference semifinals – with an overtime loss in the semifinals to eventual champion Winthrop on its home court an instant classic.
Head coach Tim Craft has a veteran team returning and has proven to be a tremendous addition to the program himself after winning 74 games in his first four seasons at the helm.
All-Big South wing David Efianayi (Orlando, Fla. / Ocoee HS) is back for his junior season after posting 12.6 points per game in a breakthrough sophomore campaign. Efianayi made 111 free throws, shot 50.9 percent from the floor – and 41.5 percent from long range – to earn honorable mention All-Big South honors in 2016-2017.
Senior wings Jamaal Robateau (Gold Coast, Australia / North Idaho College) and Liam O’Reilly (Austin, Texas / Collin County College) also return after averaging 9.5 and 8.1 points per game, respectively. That duo combined to knock down 119 three-point baskets.
Senior center L’Hassane Niangane (Chalon-sur-Saône, France) returns after starting 32 games last season and providing sturdy defense in the paint. Brandon Miller (Orlando, Fla. / University Christian), a 6-foot-6, 245-pounder, also returns in the post, along with forwards D.J. Laster (Pensacola, Fla. / Pensacola Catholic) and Patrick Zeck (Atlanta, Ga. / Marist HS).
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Laster was very effective late last season, averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds off the bench over the final 12 games of the season.
Christian Turner (Atlanta, Ga. / Sandy Creek HS) returns as the team’s most experienced point guard after coming off the bench in 31 games as a true freshman. Reserves Eric Jamison (East Point, Ga. / Greater Atlanta Christian) and Justin Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn. / The Webb School) also return.
Gardner-Webb has three scholarship newcomers on the roster, with 6-foot-4 guard Nate Johnson (Miami, Fla. / McArthur HS) expected to make a major push for playing time on the wing. Johnson redshirted last season to add weight and was one of the team’s most explosive scorers in practices. He earned All-State honors two seasons ago at McArthur (Fla.) High after averaging 22.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
GWU added an impact point guard in the spring when Jaheam Cornwall (Brooklyn, N.Y. / Putnam Science) signed with the Runnin’ Bulldogs. The 6-0 freshman starred in one of the toughest prep school leagues in America over the past two seasons, averaging 11.2 points and 4.6 assists per game as a postgraduate in 2017. Cornwall and Turner will provide Gardner-Webb with a strong rotation at the point guard spot, with O’Reilly also capable of handling those duties.
The ‘Dogs also added an important piece to the frontcourt in 7-0, 230-pound center Acton Shirley (Zebulon, Ga. / Pike County HS), who should develop into a quality big man before his career is finished in Boiling Springs.
Gardner-Webb will open its 2017-2018 regular season on Friday, November 10, at Miami (Fla.) in Coral Gables.