At Big South Media Day, Gardner-Webb basketball teams talk about 2020-21 season

By Richard Walker

In preseason polls conducted by the Big South Conference, Gardner-Webb University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are cast in the darkhorse role for their respective league races.

The Bulldogs’ men’s team, which won the Big South title in 2019 for its first-ever NCAA Division I tournament appearance, is picked fourth in the 11-team league and drew one first-place vote from a 24-person voting panel. Defending champion Winthrop is the preseason favorite.

The Lady Bulldogs, who won the Big South in 2011 for their only NCAA Division tourney appearance, were picked fifth. Defending regular season champion Campbell is the preseason favorite.

Gardner-Webb senior guard Jaheam Cornwell dribbles upcourt during a 2019 game at UNC-Asheville. [GWUsports.com photo]
The Big South held its 2020-21 media day virtually by zoom news conference on Tuesday and Gardner-Webb coaches Tim Craft and Alex Simmons and players Jaheam Cornwell and Alexis Hueston met with the media.

Craft is entering his eighth season as men’s coach and is coming off a season in which a veteran Bulldogs’ team tied a school record for Big South Conference wins with 11. Gardner-Webb finished 16-16 overall after losing to eventual Big South champion Winthrop in the 2020 league tournament semifinals.

This season, Craft returns only three players with playing experience against league competition – Cornwell, Ludovic Dufeal and Kareem Reid – and faces a daunting non-conference schedule.

“It’s not ideal in terms of the spacing of the games,” Craft said of an opening stretch in which G-W visits Duke, Florida State and Georgia for three games in five days from Nov. 25-29. “But every good player wants to play against the best teams in the country. That’s what we’re doing in the first five days.”

Cornwell, a senior guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., was named first team preseason All-Big South. He averaged 13.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 32 games (31 starts) last season.

Reid, a sophomore from Queens, N.Y., was named second team preseason All-Big South after averaging 6.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 32 games (one start) last season.

“There’s definitely a sense of pressure because you have to get the young guys on the same page,” Cornwell of helping nine newcomers – including seven freshman – adjust to major college basketball.

One of the biggest challenges has been in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cornwell said he struggled to find places to do offseason drills in his hometown before returning to Boiling Springs and Craft says while only one player contracted the coronavirus, offseason workouts were clearly altered.

“It’s been a wild offseason just in terms of life,” said Craft, whose team will play a league schedule that includes back-to-back games in order to follow safety precautions set forth by league schools and officials. “But I’m excited about our team. Clearly, we’ve got to be ready for anything.”

Third-year women’s coach Simmons has guided her first two teams to winning records – 16-15 and 18-11 – and appeared to have momentum for a league tournament title push when the 2020 Big South women’s tournament was cancelled by the pandemic.

“We were on our way to a practice,” said Simmons, whose team had four straight and eight of its last nine entering the conference tournament. “So to be told when you’re on your way to prepare for a game is devastating.”

Like the men’s team, she has a large group of newcomers (five freshman) that she thinks has made her team bigger and more athletic.

“We’re super excited about where we are as a team,” said Simmons, whose team opens its season on Nov. 25 at home against Elon before playing two SEC schools, one ACC school and one Atlantic 10 school in its other non-league games.

Hueston, a senior from Roanoke, Va. who averaged 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds last season, felt her team was “peaking at the right time” when last season was cancelled.

But she says she and her teammates will be motivated to do the same again this season.

“We’re really young experience wise,” Hueston said. “But the freshman are all really athletic. Our goal will be to be playing our best at the end of the season like last year.”