On Wednesday at 1 p.m., before the big boys at Duke and Virginia had even left their respective campuses, Gardner-Webb’s basketball players were leaving Carolina Coliseum after a brisk 90-minute practice.
“I just wanted to get into a new environment, get them feeling this whole deal a little bit as early as possible and allow them to experience the tournament as early as we possibly can,” Runnin’ Bulldogs head coach Tim Craft said. “I want our guys to really enjoy this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type deal for most college players, but at the same time we want to play well and we have no shot to play well if we’re not locked in.”
Gardner-Webb is one of four No. 16 seeds in the main draw of the NCAA Tournament. Underdogs are what puts the madness in March Madness, and on Friday, Columbia will be the underdog capital of America. The first- and second-round games being played in Colonial Life Arena make Columbia the only site in the country that will have two No. 1 seeds and, therefore, two No. 16 seeds.
The Blue Devils and the Cavaliers are the No. 1 seeds. North Dakota State defeated N.C. Central in the First Four on Wednesday night for the right to be the other No. 16 seed in Columbia and face Zion Williamson and Duke.
Gardner-Webb, which is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, will play perennial power Virginia at 3:10 p.m. Friday. The Runnin’ Bulldogs drove the 90 minutes from their 5,000-person campus in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, straight to the University of South Carolina’s practice facility Wednesday morning.
“I’m feeling good, man,” said senior guard David Efianayi, who leads Gardner-Webb with 18.4 points per game. “The team is looking good. We just got done having a great practice. I’m just very excited to be here in this position.”
Gardner-Webb was picked to finish sixth in the Big South’s preseason poll but finished the regular season in fourth place, then won the conference tournament and automatic bid that came with it on March 10.
That left Craft with a week before Selection Sunday to get his team mentally prepared for March Madness. On March 13, he showed his players a highlight reel featuring 15 clips of NCAA Tournament upsets. One of them was from last season when No. 16 UMBC knocked off No. 1 Virginia, the first victory for a 16 seed in the tournament’s history.
“We didn’t know we were playing Virginia at the time, but we knew whoever we were playing we were going to have to pull off an unbelievable 40 minutes, and it was going to be an upset,” Craft said. “We are going to try to go out and prepare and try to play our best.”
Craft knows that the Cavaliers will hear dozens of questions about last year’s UMBC game leading up to Friday’s game.
“Every single (possible matchup) was going to be a ridiculously tough challenge, and they all present a different challenge,” Craft said. “Virginia has been one of the best teams in the country from start to finish, and anybody we would have played would have been in that same boat.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have won 11 of their last 13 games, with wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest this year.
“The coaches have a great game plan for us,” Efianayi said. “If we go out there and compete and share the ball and play together, I think we can beat anybody. Anybody can get beaten. It’s March Madness.”
NCAA Tournament Columbia regional game schedule
The NCAA Tournament in Columbia schedule for Friday’s games (with Sunday’s second round game times to be announced).
(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Oklahoma, 12:40 p.m. Friday (truTV)
(1) Virginia vs. (16) Gardner-Webb, approximately 3 p.m. Friday (truTV)
(1) Duke vs. (16) North Dakota State, 7:10 p.m. Friday (CBS)
(8) VCU vs. (9) UCF, approximately 9:40 p.m. Friday (CBS)