Is It Really Furman’s Year?
By John Hooper
It was the dawn of a new era in the United States. The average cost of gas was $1.19, the average income per year was a little under 20K per year, and the president was Jimmy Carter. Mount Saint Helens erupted, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the LA Rams, 31-19, in the Super Bowl, the No. 1 single was Blondie’s “Call Me”, and Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals claimed the NCAA Basketball crown, and oh yeah, I was born on April 28 of that year.
The last moment won’t make any of those major events from the year that commenced what some believe is the greatest decade of in the history of the United States for a myriad of reasons, which not least of which featured Karate Kid and its Chicago soundtracks that takes pretty much all of us in my age bracket back to their respective childhoods. It was the 1980s, and in particular, the last time made the Big Dance and went to the NCAA Tournament.
The year 1980 is also a special one to Furman fans, as it was the last time the Paladins saw their team go dancing in March under the direction of head coach Eddie Holbrook. The Paladins knocked off VMI (W, 87-75 in Greenville), East Tennessee State (W, 93-81), and Marshall (W, 80-62) to claim their sixth Southern Conference Tournament crown.
In the 1980 NCAA Tournament, Furman took on Tennessee in the 48-team field, losing 80-69 in the opening round of the tournament. That 1980 Paladin team featured the likes of Jonathan Moore, Mel Daniel, and Ron White, who helped the Paladins to the 23-7 record, which at the time, was a school record for victories in a season.
Fast-forward 40 years later and as we sit at the brink of the 2020-21 basketball season, there’s uncertainty as to whether a college basketball season can happen all together, and it’s like stepping into the current United States is like being on another planet light years removed from 1980.
In 2020 so far, Kobe Bryant has died, the pandemic COVID-19 has claimed 1.4 million lives worldwide and 210,000 people have died in the United States (As of Oct. 5, 2020), hurricane season has reached greek letters, political and social unrest is at an all-time boiling point. It all seems like the American Dream has turned into the American Nightmare over night.
Some have even gone as far as to say this is the worst year in history. There is also potentially the most important Presidential Election in the history of our country coming up just three weeks before the opening tip of the 2020-21 season.
Never has it been a more crucial year in the 244 years the United States has called itself a country has it been more important for our voices to be heard as Americans.
Something like college basketball must seem incredibly trivial by comparison. But, in a way, it will provide a way for our country to heal from the many wounds and grievances we’ve had to endure over the first half of this year alone.
However, if you see Bob Richey with a basketball net draped around his neck on March 8, 2021 and is answering questions at a microphone at the US Cellular Center following winning three games in Asheville to gain the SoCon’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 41 years, he might have a much different way to describe how the way the final final two months of the worst year imaginable went.
In fact, the 37-year old head coach, who would not even been born for three more years the last time
Furman went dancing, might tell you its not how you start, but it has everything to do with how you finish.
That’s because Furman’s 2019-20 season ended in a fashion that Richey and his team probably wishes they could eliminate from their collective memories all together, as the Paladins, who came to Asheville as the No. 2 seed and offered what many felt as the biggest obstacle to juggernaut East Tennessee State living up to its preseason expectations to claim both the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
Furman wouldn’t get close to finding out if it could, as the Paladins lost their first game in Asheville. To make matters worse, the 77-68 loss came to its arch-rival….Wofford. Richey wore the loss more than any other I had ever seen in his three years at Furman.
That one stung the young head coach, I thought. On all top of all that, it was the end of the road for Furman’s dynamic guard Jordan Lyons, who was such a big part of Furman’s turnaround. He was a big piece. Just like Stephen Croone (2016 SoCon Player of the Year), Devin Sibley (2017 SoCon Player of the Year).
Wofford would end up going all the way to the SoCon Basketball Tournament title game on Monday night as the Terriers had done a year earlier under first-year head coach and former Furman assistant Jay McAuley only to lose to Steve Forbes’ East Tennessee State Bucs 72-58 in the championship game.
It was Forbes’ final act as head coach in Johnson City, as the pandemic hit sports almost exactly 48 hours after Forbes finished up answering questions is when Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 prior to a game with the Dallas Mavericks. The domino effect set in. College sports were canceled for the remainder of the spring. No NCAA Tournament, and for Furman, no NIT for a second-straight year.
I went to congratulate Forbes following the historic night for the Bucs, who had just polished off its 30th win and its second NCAA Tournament ticket punched in a five-year span under Forbes, as I knew this one might be the last one. Forbes had become one of my favorite coaches in the league, as you could literally call him up and just talk about life if you wanted to.
That doesn’t happen with most coaches, especially if you’re a reporter. But Forbes was genuine. I had a feeling it would be his last game as the coach at ETSU. His words seconds later confirmed that.
After taking a sip of his Coke, he said “you know, Bob [Richey] will be up there next year answering questions like I just answered next year”. It took a minute for that to register for me, but it was if Forbes already knew he was leaving for a bigger job, and he was already making a subtle prediction for 2021. Forbes left for Wake Forest in April, with college basketball and all the nation at a stand-still.
That part of his own subtle prophecy he made came true, and he will likely turn around the Demon Deacons good and make them good in a hurry. I’ll miss talking to Forbes regularly in the SoCon, but the only thing left to see is if his veiled SoCon Tournament prophecy comes true in March. After Forbes won the tournament, he overcame his own tough year, having lost his father to a heart attack almost exactly a year to the day earlier.
If Furman hopes to end its streak of not making the NCAA Tournament, they will have to do it in one of the most difficult years in the history of our great nation, all while hoping a pandemic doesn’t end a dream.before it can even get off the ground running.
For Richey, he’s had his own tough year. Losing to Wofford is one thing, but losing a child to his wife’s miscarriage is quite another. If you add that on top of everything else 2020 has brought, it hasn’t been easy for him. We sometimes forget that coaches and student-athletes have to manage the same tough “life issues” all of us do, but the difference is, they have to do it when holding a lot of that inside.
Coaches are private for a reason. It can be deflating to their team for a coach to display anything other than a confident and joyful look. Coaches can sometimes wear the job.
For Richey, he hopes to wear the net and wear the joy of seeing his team put an end to Furman’s SoCon Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament Tournament droughts, which by that time will have last 41 years.
It could make a tough year at least a little better for both him, his players and the Greenville community at large. It would be a well-deserved trophy, as the Paladins are one of only 26 out of 357 Division I basketball programs that have won 96 games over the past four years, with Richey having been at the helm for three of those seasons, posting a 73-27 record as the head coach.
Though Furman must replace leading scorer and the team’s emotional leader Jordan Lyons, who has graduated and recently signed a pro contract to play in Latvia, the Paladins finally have the maturity, talent and cohesiveness do win end that 41-year curse as some of the Furman faithful have referred to it.
While the Paladins certainly have many more pros than cons heading into the season, it was the little things Furman didn’t do that cost them in Asheville on that early March night in Asheville against Wofford, which saw the Terriers claim their second victory in three games with the Paladins last season.
The loss nine-point loss to the Terriers revealed three issues that showed up here and there during the 2019-20 season for the Paladins, which were depth, post defense, and rebounding. If the Paladins address those three parts of the game during the off-season, it would likely be enough to see Furman live up to its lofty preseason expectations.
If you believe in the fictional proverbial “window of opportunity” then this is the year that not only is the fat lady witholding her final cantabile, but also waiting on the window to be just wide enough for her to fit through, as she anxiously waits to see what Furman does before she belts out her old dirge or crawls through the window before slamming it behind her on the way out.
Like Forbes and current UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller, Richey is on the radar of many major programs for what could be a dream job for he and his family in the very near future, however, he’d like to leave Furman like Forbes did, which is on a high note and the program in good form much like Niko Medved left him when he suddenly left during in Furman’s 2017 CIT run ro become the head coach of Drake in March of 2017.
Forty-one years later, this story will either be lost in the files of season previews in the annals of the SoCon’s many missed prognostications of previewing past, or perhaps another notch on COVID’s pandemic belt, or just maybe it will serve as a reference point of what the backdrop is and was in our country between Paladin basketball bliss…Furman curse exorcised.
With four starters back, including six of the top eight scorers from a team that matched a school record 25 wins last season, the 2020-21 could set up nicely for Furman to make that return to the NCAA Tournament.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, which many cite as the officially the return of successful basketball played in Greenville although it likely started with Furman’s magical run to the 2015 Southern Conference title game as the No. 10 seed, the Paladins have posted a 115- record since the start of that season, including 96 wins over the past four campaigns.
A five-year stretch that has yielded a national ranking, five-straight bids to the college basketball postseason, two SoCon Players of the Year, a SoCon Freshman of the Year, the school’s first-ever national ranking and wins over a final four and national championship team from the previous campaign, a regular-season SoCon title, and the program’s first trip to the National Invitational Tournament for the first time since 1991, is enough to whet the appetite of any program, much less that hasn’t been to the big time since big time in 41 years.
In fact, Furman’s 41-year drought is only eclipsed by the two military schools in the SoCon for longest drought from the NCAA Tournament, as both VMI and The Citadel have longer NCAA Tournament droughts. The Keydets have a 45-year drought from the NCAA Tournament, while The Citadel have never gone dancing.
Furman is coming off a 25-7 record from the 2019-20 season, which saw the Paladins set a school-record with 25 regular-season wins, while also setting a new school mark for Southern Conference wins, posting a 15-3 mark in league play.
The Paladins were so close. A seven-man rotation on most nights was one of the reasons the Paladins were in trouble in the games when the Paladin bigs got in foul trouble.
Post defense also became a liability in some conference matchups last season, namely Wofford, Western Carolina and UNCG, who presented problems in the paint with their depth and tough players to guard in the post.
One of the main thing head coach Bob Richey has emphasized during this strange off-season is establishing a nine-man rotation rather than a seven-man rotation, which is what the Paladins featured for much of the 2019-20 season.
The development of depth in the backcourt is also very important for the Paladins Jaylon Pugh (2.2 PPG, 0.7 RPG), Colin Kenney (1.1 PPG, 0.5 RPG), and guys that red-shirted last year like Marcus Foster will be paramount this season. In the frontcourt, guys like sophomore Ben Beeker (1.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG) and redhsirt freshman Johnny Lawrence will be as much of a key to the season, as the top seven scorers that are returning for the 2020-21 campaign.
For the Paladins, the 2020-21 season will be its most important season in the rich history of the program.
Financially, Furman has been hit hard by COVID-19, as the Paladins have already had to cut a pair of sports, including the school’s second-oldest sport, baseball. Basketball and football have been prioritized. Sometimes that’s a harsh reality at smaller liberal arts Division I schools like Furman.
In truth, adding sports like Lacrosse combined with the challenges presented by the pandemic ultimately proved to be a brutal fate for baseball. Of my personal opinion, I am still shocked and disappointed by the decision to drop baseball. However, while I am disappointed and in disagreement, I move on covering Furman athletics and its successful programs.
Heart of a Lyons:
When the final buzzer sounded between Furman and Wofford in the Southern Conference quarterfinals last March in Asheville, a sick feeling suddenly appeared for Paladin head coach Bob Richey.
Yes, it was a loss to a Wofford team that a couple of Furman fomer assistants on its staff—Terrier head coach Jay McAuley and former assistant coach Dwight Perry, who is a top assistant to McAuley and before that Richey at Furman—but that wasn’t where the sick feeling had emerged in the head coach, who had just completed his third season at the helm of a Furman basketball program that was beginning to become a force in mid-major basketball.
Another part of that sick feeling for Richey stemmed from the fact that it was a big missed opportunity for the Paladin basketball program. Richey was most sick for his lone senior, Jordan Lyons, who wouldn’t get that chance to be the player that ended that NCAA Tournament drought after 40 years.
Still, Richey figured the Paladins would be in the National Invitational Tournament, which would be selected in a little over week’s time following the NCAA Tournament field of 68 had been set. It wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, however, it was a big deal to a player like Lyons, who still had a chance to make a run in one of the prestigious tournaments in the college basketball postseason.
However, that moment never came, as the following Wednesday, all sports came to a sudden halt with Rudy Golbert of the Utah Jazz testing positive for COVID-19 just about an hour prior to tip-off between Utan and Dallas in the NBA.
Just about 13 hours later, that sick feeling came back for Richey and the Paladins, with the cancellation of all college basketball’s postseason tournaments, as well as all pro sports seasons. The cancellation meant that the nine-point loss to Wofford signaled the end of what had been a remarkable career for the product out of Peachtree City Georgia.
Just a week earlier, Furman would beat The Citadel, () in what was an emotional farewell game for Lyons, who learned just prior to tip-off that his jersey would be displayed at the basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachussetts, as a result of his NCAA record-tying 15 three-pointers in a game against North Greenville as a junior, which made for an emotional day all round for Lyons in front of the home folks.
After the game, Lyons had a private ceremony for players and family and those close to the team, as food was served, stories were shared, and tears were shed over the two hours. Perhaps that was what made the Wofford loss so tough to stomach for Richey.
The previous spring, Lyons had written him a special letter after Richey’s wife, Jessica, had miscarried. A tough time for any couple no doubt. As coach that story at the dinner that night following The Citadel game, he had a tough time telling the story without shedding a tear or two.
The point is that Lyons was that kind of player that, though he was Furman’s leading scorer, at 16.5 PPG last season, you were losing more off the court in leadership and heart than you were losing on the court.It will mark the fourth-straight season the program has to replace its leading scorer, yet Furman continues to forge a successful path in both the Southern Conference and in mid-major basketball under Richey.
His 96 career wins at Furman were the most for any player in the history of the program. To start 2020, Lyons went 11-of-15 from the field in a road win over VMI, which yielded a 40-point scoring effort, with 10 of those 11 field goals coming from beyond the arc.
His 40-point effort were the most by any player in the Southern Conference this season, and his 54-point effort last season was also the most points scored in a Southern Conference game in the 2018-19 campaign.
Likewise, his 10 three-pointers this season vs. VMI and his 15 three-pointers vs. North Greenville last season account for the most triples hit in a game by a SoCon player each of the past two campaigns.
The Peachtree City, GA, native also finished the season with the most SoCon’s top number of 30 or more point scoring performances. His 288-career three-pointers ranks him 11th in SoCon history in career three-pointers made. Lyons finished the season as a Lou Henson All-America honoree, and was a first-team All-SoCon honoree.
It was almost fitting that the only other loss for the Paladins following the 2019-20 season was Lyons’ best friend, Tre Clark, who announced he would be transferring from Furman to play his final year at Rice. It was a tough decision for Clark, who had become Furman’s best defender and had given the Paladins a major boost off the bench.
Clark will be an asset to the new program he is joining, however, as he will be a Rice Owl next season in Houston. The Palmetto, FL, product finished out his junior season averaging 3.3 PPG and 3.4 RPG and gave the Paladins emphatic plays off the bench, including some above the rim, high-rise acts, as well as his ability to be a rim protector with his tremendous athleticism.
Both players will be missed for different reasons, however, both will always be a part of the Furman basketball family and culture. Richey knows he will have a tough time finding a guy to replace Lyons, who was seemingly an instant shot of espresso on the offensive end of the floor on plenty of occasions when the Paladins needed it most during the 2019-20 season. Lyons gave swagger, but he brought heart.
Culture Shift Begins:
When Niko Medved took over the helm of the Furman basketball program in 2013-14, he had much to do when he started to repair the image of Paladin basketball.
What he had inherited seemed like a big project that only someone familiar with the Furman basketball program might be able to prepare. Fortunately for Medved, he did have the familiarity, as he was the assistant under Larry Davis from 1999-2006, but when Davis left to become an assistant coach at Cincinnati, Medved was named interim head coach of the Furman basketball program for three weeks, primarily to try and keep a recruiting class together.
He was not retained as an assistant by the newly hired Jeff Jackson, and as a result, Medved would begin his journey away from Furman, as he went on a seven-year pilgrammage to hone his skills to become the Paladin head coach, learning under the likes of Dan Monson (Minnesota), Tim Miles (Colorado State) and Larry Eustachy (Colorado State) before he eventually ended up returning to Furman to take the head coaching job in 2013-14.
Meanwhile, during the same time Medved was groomed to become the next Furman head coach, the Paladin basketball program was seemigly reaching new lows under Jackson. Aside from the 2010-11 season, which saw the Paladins win 22 games, that era of Furman basketball was a painful one to watch for Paladin fans and media alike.
Furman won just 13 games from 2007-to-2009, and after seven seasons, then Furman Director of Athletics Gary Clark decided to make a change at head men’s basketball coach, bringing Medved back after a successful stint as the top assistant coach. Under Jackson, Furman had gone just 85-113 and just 48-82 in SoCon play.
One of the key additions made during that tough 2012-13 season was Bob Richey being added to the Furman staff. That would prove to be a key addition, as Richey would end up being the only assistant retained by Medved, as he built his staff.
Medved assembled quite possibly the best staff in the SoCon, bringing in current Wofford head coach Jay McAuley, as well as current Wofford assistant Dwight Perry. The first season saw the struggles of rebuilding a program already collectively down on itself, as the Paladins could muster just a 9-21 overall record, which included a 3-13 record in SoCon play.
The spring was devoted to hitting the recruiting trail for the Paladin staff, which was exactly where Richey thrived. He was one of the best up-and-coming recruiters in mid-major college basketball. Richey was already responsible for bringing in the Paladins’ top player at that time—Stephen Croone—who would go on to finish his career as the program’s fifth all-time leading scorer.
That spring saw additions like point guard John Davis III, wing Daniel Fowler (Kennesaw, GA), guard Devin Sibley (Knoxville, TN), and Geoff Beans (Cleveland, OH), were a class of players brought in to help a solid nucleus, which included the aforementioned Croone, along with Kendrec Ferrara, Kris Acox and Larry Wideman among others.
The new guys would have a pretty stout challenge from the outset of the season, with the first game coming against College of Charleston on Nov. 15, 2014. The Paladins were without leading scorer Croone, who missed the opener with a minor injury, meaning the new freshman would be up against an experienced, talented College of Charleston team.
With four freshmen seeing most of the action on the night, their introduction to Division I college basketball was a humbling one, as the College of Charleston picked up a 35-point, 75-40, victory over the Paladins. CofC, which of course was heading into its third season as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, and the Couguars shot 52.5% from the field for the game to pick up the lopsided win. The Cougars hit 11-of-22 three-pointers in the win.
Furman offered some glimpses of hope during the non-conference slate, however, as just before Christmas, the Paladins nearly went back to Niko Medved’s home state and took down Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers, losing the contest 86-76 at Williams Arena.
Things would slowly but surely get better for the Paladins during the 2014-15 season, as the talent began to blossom and gain confidence. By the time February rolled around, this collection of four freshmen started to get tired of losing to the top teams in the conference in close games.
But there were also some real head-scratchers for rhe Paladins during the final month of the regular-season as well, with lopsided road losses at VMI (L, 59-93) and UNC Greensboro (L, 48-84). However, for the most part, Furman was seemingly getting better as the 2014-15 season peogressed and entered the SoCon Tournament as maybe the best lowest-seeded team in tournament history.
Medved’s Paladins would gain even more confidence when heading to Asheville, as Furman went toe-to-toe with Wofford on Senior Day at Timmons Arena, as the Paladins played again without an injured Croone against a very good basketball team from the Palmetto State, as Wofford regular-season champion Wofford paid a visit to Timmons Arena.
However, the Paladins didn’t succumb by 35 points on their home floor like they did in the first game of the season without Croone. In fact, Furman was shooting for a chance to win it or send the contest and send it to overtime, however freshman point guard John Davis III, who saw most of the action at the point without Croone available and finished with a then career-high 20 points, saw his shot clang off the rim as time expired and Wofford had survived for a 62-60 win.
The Paladins would go on to make a remarkable run towards the SoCon championship game, as the Paladins knocked off The Citadel, No. 2 Chattanooga (W, 69-67) and No. 3 Mercer (W, 52-49).
In the championship game against top-seeded Wofford, the Paladins lost big man Kris Acox early to a fractured foot, then lost the game late following an offensive rebound and a key Eric Garcia three, as Wofford held on for the 67-64 win and gained the SoCon’s automatic bid to the postseason.
The run was powered by three SoCon All-Freshman performers, and the SoCon Freshman of the Year—Devin Sibley.
Though the loss in the title game was heartbreaking, the Paladin basketball program has continued to move forward ever since under both Medved and Richey, with both preaching from the same success manual.
In fact, since the start of the tournament run in the 2015 SoCon Tournament in Asheville, Furman has won 118 basketball games and has won more games or equaled its previous season’s win total from the year before. The past four seasons have seen the Paladins win 20 or more games.
The pressure to maintain such a success rate, especially at that rate at the mid-major level, is not easy. The 2015-16 season yielded 19 wins, a trip to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, a win in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, and a Southern Conference Player of the Year—Stephen Croone.
The excitement of Furman basketball was alive and well, and even though the Paladins were bounced out of the Southern Conference with an 80-75 loss in the SoCon semifinals to East Tennessee State, the season featured thrilling buzzer-beating wins over both arch-rival Wofford and in the CIT vs. Louisiana Monroe.
Given that kind of improvement, the prestige of the Paladin basketball program was on the rise in mid-major hoops, and along with Richey’s recruiting expertise coupled with a little success, the Paladins started to make some noise with the types of recruits they were starting to attract to its program.
The recruiting uptick for the Paladins had yielded a couple of promising players that coiuld come in and make immediate impacts. Two of those players that came in and were able to have an impact in the immediate were both Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown, who would become leaders almost instantly for the Paladins
It was also becoming clear that the Furman basketball program was one that was starting to have a pattern to the way it did things. That was recruit, redshirt and develop. Transfers weren’t ever part of the Medved or Richey model, and unless there are really special circumstances, one would imagine that is how it will remain going forward.
People across the country would begin to notice the Paladin program in 2016-17, as by now, guys like Beans, Fowler, John Davis III and Devin Sibley were juniors and they had maturity. That’s why a season-opening loss to Presbyterian came as a shock and a major disappointment to Medved and staff.
It was unacceptable no matter where the game was played, but happened to be played in Clinton, S.C. at the Termpleton Center.
Following what was a disappointing home loss to PC to open the season, and it looked like a real possibility of the Paladins starting the season with three losses with back-to-back games on the road at UAB and Georgia the next two games.
Facing a team with a 26-game homecourt winning streak, but Furman responded with the grit, toughness and crisp play on both ends of the floor, posting the 83-74 upset of the UAB Blazers on the road.
The Paladins would also battle all night at No. 14 Michigan before eventually dropping a 68-62 decision in Ann Arbor. The Paladins were quickly establishing themselves as a force in the Southern Conference.
The 2016-17 season saw the Paladins share of the Southern Conference title, but disappointment came in the Southern Conference Tournament, as the Paladins lost their opening round contest—to Samford—and the season came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end. The Paladins had entered the tournament as the No.2 overall seed. It was the end of an outstanding career for Kris Acox, who set new single-season and career marks for field goal percentage in a career.
The Paladins made a nice run in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, reaching the Final Four of the tournament before being knocked out by eventual champion St. Peters, with a 77-51 loss to the Peacocks. Though the loss was lopsided, the Paladins probably were a team that had been on an emotional roller-coaster after head coach Niko Medved announced he would be leaving the program to take the job at Drake, leaving Bob Richey as the interim head coach.
Less than 48 hours later, Richey was charged with helping lead the Paladins to the CIT crown, but even coaching as hard as he did, he couldn’t overcome the emotional state of his players. Still, the 23-win season had tied a school record set by the 1979-80 squad, and was something to be celebrated. Devin Sibley had also been named Southern Conference Player of the Year that season.
Later in the spring of 2017, Bob Richey was officially named as the head coach of the Furman basketball program, as the Paladins looked to maintain their high level of success, and the best news was the fact that Medved left the program in great shape for the future.
The Paladins had a nucleus of players like junior forward Matt Rafferty, junior guard Andrew Brown, sophomore guard Jordan Lyons, senior wing Daniel Fowler, as well as senior guards John Davis III and Devin Sibley.
The expectation was a Southern Conference title run once again, and once again, to make it back to the Big Dance for the first time in what had been 38 years. Things started well once again for the Paladins, as the Paladins went 10-5 during non-conference play.
The Paladins had taken on the likes of Duke, Butler, and Tennessee during the non-conference portion of the slate, losing to all three, but put up a valiant effort against the No. 20 ranked Volunteers just before Christmas, losing 66-61. The performance came up just short, but going into Southern Conference play, it was a good emotional lift for the team.
The conference regular-season would see the Paladins get swept by UNC Greensboro, and split with East Tennessee State. This time, the Spartans would claim both the regular-season and tournament crowns. It could have been another tie, however, the Paladins prevented that on senior day at East Tennessee State, as the Paladins claimed a 79-76 win on a late four-point play from Knoxville, TN, native Devin Sibley, as the Paladins exacted a little bit of revenge following a 62-61 win in Greenville a month earlier.
The Paladins matched their 23 wins from a year earlier with a 96-72 opening round win in the Southern Conference Tournament against Western Carolina, setting up a third matchup with East Tennessee State in the semifinals of the SoCon Tournament.
While the Paladins may have ended ETSU’s SoCon regular-season title hopes a week earlier, it was ETSU putting an end to the Paladins’ season, posting a 63-52 win over Furman in the semifinals. It was the end of another era of four great pillars of the Furman basketball rebuilding project, as it was the end of the road for Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Devin Sibley and Daniel Fowler.
This night was another tough one for Richey and the Paladins. Unless your the last press conference to take the stage at the US Cellular Arena on SoCon Tournament weekend, it’s always a great disappointment. Sibley, who had been the SoCon’s Player of the Year as a junior, was just not the same player as a senior. He had arguably his best performances of the season playing back in the Volunteer State against both ETSU and Tennessee.
By the 2018-19 season, culture had been established and a model of success had been formulated moving forward. The Paladins were a program that had now positioned itself as a threat to both UNCG and ETSU at the top of the Southern Conference each season, and the Paladins were doing so at a time when the conference was at its strongest maybe in its entire history.
The 2018-19 campaign started off with a bang in the opening month of the season, as the Paladins knocked off a pair of Final Four teams from a year earlier, knocking off Loyola-Chicago (60-58), and then nine days later, posted the unthinkable—a 76-68 overtime win at No. 8 and reigning national champion Villanova.
Matt Rafferty’s 15 points and career-high 17 rebounds had people around mid-major hoops starting to take note of the senior from Hinsdale, Illinois. Rafferty would put up some unreal, and in some ways, untouchable numbers in his senior season. He was putting up numbers that were simply jaw dropping throughout the season, and he would be a major reason the Paladins were able to reel off 12-straight wins to start the season.
The 12-0 start by the Paladins represented the best start by a SoCon basketball program to a season since the 1965-66 season, when Lefty Driesell’s Davidson Wildcats started the campaign 15-0.
Also part of the non-conference slate was a seemingly mundane game against North Greenville. But it turned into a record-breaking night for junior guard Jordan Lyons, who scored 54 points—the most by any Division I college basketball player since Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks vs. Tennessee in 2009—and Lyons connected on 15 three-pointers in the contest, which tied Marshall’s Keith Veney (1996) and Robert Morris’ Josh Williams (2018) were the only players in NCAA Division I history to connect on 15 triples in a single game.
It finally did enough to get the Paladins in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. Furman wouldn’t suffer its first loss of the 2018-19 season until visiting LSU just prior to Christmas, losing 75-57.
In conference play, the Paladins finished with a 13-5 mark in league, splitting with both UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State, while Wofford, which went unbeaten in the league in what was an unprecedented season for the Terriers, but the most disappointing setback for the Paladins came in late January when the Paladins dropped a 75-73 decision to Samford on a late jumper from Robert Allen.
For a team hoping to garner an at-large invite to the Big Dance, the loss to Samford, which was a quad 4 loss, proved to be detrimental to those hopes. But Furman had done enough with those early wins over Loyola-Chicago and Villanova early on in the season to keeps its name in the pot as a potential at-large qualifier for the NCAA Tournament.
As the Southern Conference Tournament approached, however, every team in the Southern Conference knew that the only guarantee for a conference that had never received an at-large bid in its 99 seasons of basketball was to win the automatic bid. That team would turn out to be the Wofford Terriers, who like Furman, acheived its first-ever ranking in school history, as the No. 22 ranked Terriers headed to Asheville.
Furman would open the tournament as the No. 3 seed, facing off against Mercer in the opening round of the tournament. After Furman struggled in the opening half of play, the Paladins rode the cape of Jordan Lyons on the opening night of the tournament, as he scored 26 points to lead the Paladins to an 85-74 quarterfinal win.
Furman’s star big man Matt Rafferty had suffered an injury late in the second half against Mercer, however, and that was a major concern heading into the semifinal clash with UNCG. Though it was a major concern of most Paladin fans as to how effective the Paladin star would be against the Spartans, absolutely no one questioned whether or not Rafferty would play in the game.
Furman’s NCAA Tournament hopes would once again come crashing down in the Southern Conference semifinals, as UNC Greensboro came from behind in the final 10 minutes of the contest to capture what was a 66-62 win to move on to the championship game against Wofford.
The Terriers would end up cutting down the nets in Asheville, as the Terriers went wire-to-wire undefeated in the Southern Conference and would head into the NCAA Tournament nationally-ranked after taking down the Spartans, 70-58, in the championship game.
The Paladins had hopes of making it into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, however, it was a more likely expectation for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), and that was a tournament in which the Paladins had only played in once in their storied basketball history.
The SoCon was agonizingly close to receiving a second bid to the NCAA Tournament, as according to the committee, as UNCG was the last team left out. That meant the Spartans would be the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT, while Furman, which also made the field, would be the No. 3 seed in their region.
In what had been an unprecedented season for both the league and both Furman and UNCG, which set new school-records for victories in a season, with Furman winning 25 games and UNCG heading into the tournament with 28 wins, but both would be hosting NIT games for the first time in school history.
Meanwhile, Wofford headed to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 7 to face No. 10 Seton Hall, while ETSU would end up qualifying for the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT).
Excitement was in Greenville for basketball, as the Paladins hosted their first-ever NIT game, as Furman found out Wichita State would be paying a visit to Timmons Arena. A Monday morning press conference was called to discuss the Paladins hosting a storied program such as Wichita State, coached by former Winthrop legendary head coach Gregg Marshall.
For the first time since 1991, Furman participated in one of two of college basketball’s most prestigious March Tournaments, but for the first time in school history, the 25-win and No. 3 seed Paladins would host that game on their home floor against a proud, tradition-rich program, in No. 6 seed Wichita State.
For 40 minutes, the game was a war between two quality, high-executing styles of basketball, with each being unique to the other outside their own respective conferences, and at the end of the night, the Timmons Arena scoreboard had the American Athletic Conference’s Wichita State Shockers with 76 points, while the SoCon’s Furman Paladins had 70 points.
The win pushes the Shockers into Sunday’s second round game with Furman’s Upstate neighbor, Clemson (20-13), with tip-off set for 2 p.m. at Littlejohn Coliseum. Wichita State has now won 12 of its last 15 games, improving to 20-14 overall. The Paladins conclude a season that included a litany of both team and individual milestones with a 25-8 overall record.
The game had many storylines, including Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall, who returned to his home state looking to pick up his team’s 20th win of the season, while looking for his own personal milestone 500th-career win in 21 seasons as a head college basketball coach at both Winthrop and now Wichita State.
For Furman, it was the chance to notch their first NIT win in school history, and extend the careers of seniors Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown, but unfortunately for those two seniors it was the end of the road.
Still, the 2018-19 season was about a team that took on second-year head coach Bob Richey’s vision when he took over, which was to “Dream Big” almost exactly four years ago.
All Furman did this season was dream big, from the first road trip of the season to Chicago to take one of college basketball’s Final Four participants and Cinderella from a year ago, to taking on 2011 Final Four participant Wichita State before a raucous, near full-capacity Timmons Arena in the opening round of the NIT.
Many questioned how Furman wondered how the Paladins would go about replacing the Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown, who were apart of a school-record 90 wins during their time at Furman. For the third-straight season, Furman would have to replace its leading scorer, with the graduation of Matt Rafferty.
But the Paladins welcomed the return of four starters, including a dynamic scorer in Jordan Lyons ready to lead the Paladins to even greater heights during the 2019-20 campaign.
The goal was once again establishing a new school record and helping the Paladins get to the NCAA Tournament.
The preseason favorite was East Tennessee State, who under Forbes and very similar to Furman, returned plenty of experience to the fold, as it hoped to approach similar type season that Wofford had done a year earlier by winning both the tournament and a school record 30 games.
It was apparent from early on in the season that head coach Bob Richey had the Paladins to make a run at history once again.
The Paladins opened the season with a pair of impressive wins on the road at 2019 Big South champion Gardner-Webb (W, 70-63), as well as destroying what was still a very good Loyola-Chicago (W, 87-63) team in the home opener at Timmons Arena.
Evidence of the culture change could also be witnessed that early November night at Timmons Arena, especially by the student response. A school-record 750 students showed up for the contest, and made it a madhouse from start until finish.
The electric crowd helped Furman demolish a Loyola-Chicago Ramblers teams that still had some major pieces around from the Final Four run a year earlier. The Paladin response on the floor to the electric atmosphere was an emphatic 87-63 win over one of the Missouri Valley preseason favorites.
Furman got a combined 46 points from Jordan Lyons and Clay Mounce, and Bob Richey picked up his 50th win as head coach, as the Paladins downed Loyola-Chicago, 87-63, before 2,469 rowdy fans on hand Friday night at Timmons Arena.
With the win, Furman has now won 19 of its last 21 non-conference games, with the lone two losses being to LSU and Tennessee dating back to the 2017-18 season. The Paladins move ton 2-0 on the season, while Loyola fell to 1-1.
Furman looked good for the most part in its non-conference visits to Alabama during non-conference play, taking on both Alabama and Auburn.
The Paladins faced off against Alabama on Nov. 19, dropping an 81-73 decision despite a 35-point effort from Jordan Lyons in the loss.
Against nationally-ranked No. 13 and unbeaten Auburn in early December, the Paladins led most of the game, however, a furious rally from the Tigers helped save them from joining Villanova on Furman’s basketball hit list, as the Tigers went on to survive for an 81-78 win.
The Paladins went on to finish non-conference play with a 10-3 overall mark, and went into Southern Conference with plenty of confidence, buoyed by their performances by power conference foes. The lone disappointment for Richey’s Paladins during the non-conference slate came in a loss at South Florida (L, 56-66).
One of the early indications Furman was once again going to be in the mix for a Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles following what was one of its definining performances of the 2019-20 early on in Southern Conference play in a home contest against East Tennessee State, as the Paladins knocked off league favorite East Tennessee State, 65-56, in Timmons Arena to start SoCon play.
Furman’s lone three Southern Conference losses came on the road at East Tennessee State (L, 66-75), at Wofford (L, 66-52) and vs. UNC Greensboro (L, 73-86) in what was one of the three games the Paladins played at its downtown home arena last season, which is the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. It’s a venue that the Paladins wanted to play in to increase the visibility to the greater downtown area of Greenville, to get the community re-engaged with Paladin basketball.
Furman had played its home games in downtown Greenville from 1908-1996, playing at both Textile Hall and after that, the Memorial Auditorium. On Feb. 12, 1954, Textile Hall saw one of the rarest feats accomplished in any sport, as Furman’s Frank Selvy scored 100 points in a game against Newberry at one of Furman’s two former homes downtown at Textile Hall.
The Paladins went 2-1 in its “Weekends at the Well” project last season, knocking off both Wofford (W, 67-66) and Winthrop (W, 80-73). With COVID-19 having provided much uncertainty about the 2020-21 season, no definitive word as of writing this in August has been determined as to if the Paladins will once again try to re-engage its former downtown home, which I am sure is mostly contingent on wheter or not fans can attend games, or at what capacity the games are allowed to have at such an arena.
Furman’s experiement at its former downtown home turned out in a really positive fashion, with Furman and Wofford, which was late in February, drawing over 6,000 fans (6,096) in the Paladins’ thrilling, 67-66, win over Wofford.
One of the standout individual performances for the Paladins during conference play came from senior sharp-shooting guard Jordan Lyons, who in the first game of 2020 for the Paladins, posted 40-points, which included an 11-of-15 performance from three-point range in the contest.
Lyons became the first Furman player since Darrell Floyd (1952-56) to record two or more 40-point games in a career, as Furman won its fifth-straight with a 89-73 Southern Conference win over VMI. Last season, Lyons scored 54 points and tied an NCAA Division I record with 15 three-pointers in a 107-67 win by Furman over North Greenville. His two performances of 40 or more points in a game matches former Paladin center Nield Gordon, who also achieved the feat twice in a career from 1950-53.
Furman finished out the regular-season with a school-record for regular-season wins, with 25 victories, as that also matched the season total of the 2018-19 season, but the Paladins weren’t able to establish that new school record until a Southern Conference Tournament win over Mercer. The 15 SoCon wins were also a new school-record.
The Paladins headed to Asheville for the Southern Conference Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed behind only regular-season champion East Tennessee State. The only bad news was Furman had to open in Asheville against arch-rival Wofford, which had played the Paladins tough twice during the regular-season, beating Furman soundly in Spartanburg, 66-52 in a nationally-televised game on ESPNU.
Furman would return the favor on Feb. 22, however, it took a come-from-behind effort and a late bucket from Mike Bothwell and weathering a long potential game-winning three-pointer from Nathan Hoover, as the Paladins held off the Terriers by a point.
Adding even another element to the toughness of the matchup, perhaps no other staff knew the Paladins better than Wofford’s, as head coach Jay McAuley and top Terrier assistant Dwight Perry were once assistants for Furman and are part of helping rebuild the current Paladin basketball culture.
Wofford, which had to play its way into the tournament by defeating The Citadel a night earlier, were the clear-cut better team on this early March night in a SoCon quarterfinal matchup, knocking off the Paladins, 77-68, and ultimately ending the NCAA Tournament hopes and it would turn out to be the final game of Jordan Lyons’ career in a Paladin uniform. The Paladins finished the season with a 25-7 overall and 15-3 conference mark.
The bitterness of that loss lingered far after the season and through social distancing created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furman established its culture as a perennial Southern Conference title contender and regular winner, the only thing left is to get that 41-year monkey off its proverbial backs and win the Southern Conference Tournament.
Tough at Timmons
One of the reasons Furman has emerged as such a power in mid-major basketball is Timmons Arena. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Paladins are 63-11 at home during that span. Counting the games at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena this past season, since the 2015-16 campaign, the Paladins have posted an impressive 65-12 overall mark in Greenville.
Some of the memorable wins that stand out in that time span include a 91-61 win over East Tennessee State on Feb. 16, 2019, while the 2019-20 season saw the Paladins post what was a 65-56 win over eventual conference tournament SoCon regular-season and tournament champion.
In fact, the only SoCon team to win more than once in Greenville during that span is UNC Greensboro, which is 3-2 in Greenville since the start of the 2015-16 season, and has a record of 2-2 at Timmons Arena. The Paladins have had trouble scheduling non-conference opponents in the venue that seats about 3,000, and Director of Athletics Jason Donnelly hopes that the ability to move some marquee games to an NCAA Tournament venue like the Bon Secours Wellness Arena will enable the Paladins to bring in some bigger opposition in the very near future.
Previewing the Furman Backcourt:
One of the areas head coach Bob Richey hopes to establish depth is the backcourt, which must find a way to replace leading scorer and what many would agree the team’s heart and soul from the 2019-20 campaign, in Jordan Lyons.
Losing Lyons to graduation means that the Paladins must replace their leading scorer for third-straight season and for the fourth time in the past five seasons. However, that hasn’t affected Richey’s Paladins too much, who have won 115 games over the past five seasons.
Lyons averaged 16.5 PPG and his 288-career three-pointers were a school record. However, though he is one of the players that helped establish the culture of confidence and swagger Furman has within mid-major basketball, this was the same question that was seemingly asked when Matt Rafferty graduated heading into last season.
So who steps up this season? Who adds depth to the backcourt in 2020-21. Now that wing Tre Clark has opted to transfer as well, the Paladins have a few question marks heading into the 2020-21 season even though they should enter the campaign as the favorite to win the league by most.
Clark opted to continue his career at Rice, but still holds a Furman degree, as the Palmetto, FL, native will use his grad transfer year to try and garner more playing time at as a senior as a part of the Owls program.
At times last year, it seemed Lyons could almost will the Paladins to certain wins it had, with the ETSU, VMI and wins over Loyola coming to mind, which all took place at Timmons Arena. Fortunately for Richey and staff, there are a lot of reliable, vocal leaders returning for the Paladins in the backcourt, although maybe not to the degree of Lyons.
One of the players that started to emerge last season as a true scorer and a player that caused tremendous matchup problems for opponents is Mike Bothwell (10.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.2 APG ). The 6-3, 190-lb junior from Cleveland Heights, OH, really started to emerge as one og the Paladins’ more reliable scorers in a variety of different ways with the start of conference play.
Bothwell had a breakout game in Furman’s road win at Chattanooga, as he scored a career-high 27 points in a road win for the Paladins. Last season, Bothwell played in all 32 games for the Paladins, drawing fiour starts. He went 12-of-16 shooting from the field in the win over the Mocs. Bothwell also scored 20 points in a win over North Greenville, as he posted 25 points in the win, while finishing with a 20-point effort in a road win at Elon.
The junior guard is responsible for at least two game-winning shots last season for the Paladins, proving he could be the go-to-player for the future in cluth situations. Against UT-Arlington, it was Mike Bothwell’s three-point play with 3.8 seconds remaining to give the Paladins a 58-57 lead.
In the win over Wofford late in the season at Bob Secours Wellness Arena, Bothwell provided another game-winning layup with 12.1 seconds remaining to help Furman to another one-point win, which was this time a 67-66 win over Wofford.
At 6-3 and with handles like a point guard, as well as possessing the strength and ability to post up smaller guards, he is one of the most versatile guards in the Southern Conference heading into the 2020-21 season.
Bothwell improved his scoring average by seven points last season, and had 19 double-figure scoring performances, and got hot towards the end of conference play, scoring in double figures in 14 out of the final 16 games. Bothwell averaged 11.1 PPG in Southern Conference games last season.
Bothwell was an effective outside shooter this past season for the Paladins as well, having connected on 37.7% (46-of-122) from three-point range last season, while also being one of the better foul shooters on the squad, connecting on 81.3% (52-of-64) from the charity stripe last season. Bothwell also finished the campaign with 70 assists, averaging 2.2 helpers-per-game, while also turning the ball over 35 times.
On the defensive end of the floor Bothwell, finished the season with 35 steals and blocked two shots. He has continued to work on that aspect of his game, and his 35 thefts ranked him fourth on the club in steals last season. Bothwell seems like the most likely player to replace Lyons in the starting lineup for the Paladins in the 2020-21 campaign.
The unquestioned leader of the Paladin backcourt this winter will be senior Alex Hunter (8.9 PPG, 3.7 APG, 3.3 RPG). Hunter has been outstanding and poised throughout his career handling the point guard position for the Paladins. Hunter has been the starter at the point guard position each of the past three years, and has been the go-to-guy at the point guard spot ever since the graduation of John Davis III.
Hunter should end his career as one of the best ever to don a Paladin uniform. The 5-11, 175-lb native of Raleigh, N.C., will likely be encouraged to be a bit more of a scorer as a senior, because when Hunter is on from three-point range, he has the potential to go off for a big night.
He saw action in all 32 games last season, logging 31 starts. The lone game Hunter did not start was Furman’s big win on the road at UNC Greensboro. Hunter’s poise and ability to distribute the basketball, while also helping facilitate Furman’s motion offense like a well-oiled machine. In fact, it was because of Hunter that the Paladins ranked as one of the most efficient offenses in the country, according to KenPom.
Hunter finished out the 2019-20 season committing just 37 turnovers in over 1,000 minutes of court action, and he completed the campaign ranking third in the nation in assist/turnover ratio, with a 3.55 ratio. Hunter completed the 2019-20 campaign with 15 double-figure performances. Hunter’s top performance of the campaign was in a road win at Western Carolina (W, 82-73), posting 21 points. He finished the contest going 7-of-11 from the field, including going 5-for-7 from three-point range. His 21-point performance in the 82-73 win over the Catamounts in February.
Hunter finished the campaign with a team-best 117 helpers during the 2019-20 season, which also ranked fifth in the SoCon for assists-per-game. Naturally, Hunter led the SoCon in assist/turnover ratio. As a three-point threat last season, Hunter connected on 64-of-182 attempts from long range, completing the campaign with a 35.2% shooting clip from long range.
As a free throw shooter, Hunter shot 66.7% (22-of-33) from the charity stripe, and shot 42% (101-of-239) from the field last season. His 1,026 minutes played were the second-most on the team last season, which computes to an average of 32.1 minutes-per-game.
For his career, Hunter heads into his senior season with 688 points in his Paladin career with 262 helpers in his career, where he ranks just outside the top 15 in school history in the career assists category. He needs just nine assists to surpass former Paladin point guard Terry McGann to move into the top 15. Hunter is the key to whether or not the Paladins end up cutting down the nets in Asheville or not.
It’s a big deal that players like Jaylon Pugh (2.2 PPG, ), Marcus Foster, and Colin Kenney (1.1, 0.5 RPG) are three players that could enhance the depth of the backcourt this season, however, the Paladins must get more in the way of point production from Kenney, and improvement on the defensive end from Pugh if the Paladins are to build the kind of depth that will make them a legitimate threat in Asheville.
Pugh is the elder statesman of the trio, as he heads into his junior season with the Paladins. Pugh has shown the ability to be a streaky scorer, and is one of the best shooters on the team when he gets into a rhythm.
As a sophomore last season, Pugh logged action in 24 games last season, but perhaps no game was more memorable than when the Paladins faced off with the mighty Auburn Tigers, as he scored 11 points going 3-of-4 on three-pointers, with all those points coming in the opening half of play.
Pugh’s improvement on the defensive end of the floor was evident as the season progressed. He has seen action in 39 games in his first couple of seasons at Furman, and has established himself as one of Furman’s better long-range shooters. In his two seasons as a Paladin, Pugh has connected on 25-of-55 from three-point range, which computes to a percentage of 45.5% from three-point range.
Kenney is a guard that showed his prowess as a scorer in the state of Indiana, as he played at a small private school in Michigan City, Indiana, where he starred from Marquette High School and ranked sixth in the state known for its prep talent.
Last season, Kenney found himself adjusting to the college game in limited floor action for the Paladins as a true freshman. Kenney ended up seeing action in 19 games, averaging 6.4 minutes-per-game. Kenney is widely regarded is one of the top shooters on the team, but he has to look to shoot the ball more, as coach Bob Richey pointed out last season.
Kenney scored a career-high six points on 2-of-3 against Elon, while posting five points in Furman’s Southern Conference opener at Mercer.
Foster rounds out the the depth in the backcourt, and he might be the most talented player off the bench at guard, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Head coach Bob Richey commented numerous times during the 2019-20 season that Foster could have easily played this past season, and probably would have been in Furman’s top seven man rotation.
But Richey is a big believer in a redshirt year for players to learn the Paladin basketball culture, and mature as a man more than anything else.
The 6-4, 200-lb, native of Atlanta, GA, is considered one of the team’s top defenders, and although he lacks the overall athleticism that Clark possessed, he’s every bit as good of a defender as Clark and a much better perimeter shooter than Clark was.
Foster is long, and closes down passing lanes in a hurry. He is good enough to end up as the SoCon’s Freshman of the Year. The upside for Foster is huge, and he’s going to make an immediate impact in 2020-21, and could be the reason why Furman cuts down the nets in Asheville in March.
Finally, walk-ons Rett Lister (0.4 PPG, 0.1 APG) and Robert Swanson (0.8 PPG, 0.2 APG) are also vital to the Paladin basketball program, not so much for the floor time they, as much as the effort they give in practice and in other areas.
Furman’s culture and its “Further the Man” projects started under Niko Medved, and curtailed and made even better by Richey focuses on the culture of the program in all aspects, rather than just the basketball. That’s where the leadership of players like Lister and Swanson become vital to the program.
The one newcomer to keep an eye on in the Paladin backcourt in the 2020-21 campaign is Joe Anderson (Maryville High School/Maryville, TN). Anderson is likely the heir apparent to Alex Hunter at point guard. The 6-0 point guard was the The Maryville Daily Times Player of the Year as a junior, averaging 20.6 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.1 SPG, and 2.6 RPG en route to leading Maryville High School to a 20-4 record and Region 2-AAA semifinal appearance.
As a senior, Anderson became Maryville High School’s all-time leading scorer and was a finalist for “Mr. Basketball” in the state of Tennessee Richey is excited about Anderson’s understanding of the importance of the Furman basketball culture, as well as connectivity within that structure. Anderson has a tremendous basketball acumen, and is an outstanding outside shooter and scorer.
Anderson will likely contribute right away, however. Unlike the previous three seasons when Richey has normally redshirted players that could have played, building depth now has become paramount in Furman’s drive for a SoCon Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament bid, and Anderson is ready to go now, and that, along with Furman’s ability to build backcourt depth are two reasons why he will see the floor right away in 2020-21.
Backcourt Grade: A
—Furman loses a big-time scorer in Jordan Lyons, but collectively, might have a better backcourt in 2020-21 because of players like Marcus Foster being added to the fold. Bothwell began to emerge as a reliable scorer in conference player last season, and should only get better as a junior this season. Foster is another scorer, and Colin Kenney, Jaylon Pugh and Alex Hunter are both effective outside shooters. If Hunter takes care of the basketball like he did last season, the Paladins seem to be in exceptionally good shape in the backcourt
Previewing the Furman Frontcourt:
Furman’s biggest improvement last season was simultaneous to the hiring of assistant coach Tim Johnson—a Wofford Hall-of-Famer—and he made the move from being an assistant at James Madison for two seasons before coming to Furman and changing shades of purple. Johnson was vital to Furman’s success in his first season as an assistant on Richey’s staff, helping develop Furman’s three big men and presiding over the trios improvement, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
In Johnson’s first season as an assistant on the Furman’s staff, the Paladin trio underneath the hoop all saw vast improvements, and it was a big reason why the Paladins were a tough guard in the post, whether it was Auburn or East Tennessee State.
That improvement started primarily with the improvement of rising redshirt junior forward Noah Gurley (14.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 APG). Gurley will have a chance to compete for Southern Conference Player of the Year this coming season. Gurley was Furman’s most consistent player in the post last season, and one season working with Johnson, you could see the improvement in Gurley’s overall game, and that he was a much more polished player in the post, especially when it came to his post moves.
The 6-8, 210-lb junior started all 32 games last season and finished the campaign by garnering third-team All-SoCon honors. In addition to his 14.3 PPG last season, Gurley also finished the season shooting a solid 53.4% (173-of-324) from the field and was also an effective 40.7% (24-of-59) from beyond the three-point stripe. He is one of the most versatile players in the Southern Conference with his ability to step out and shoot the three.
He made 10 less three pointers than his redshirt freshman season in 2019-20, but he also shot a much higher efficiency from beyond the arc because his shot selection was so good, as he shot 49 less three-point shots, which is a testament to how much Johnson has worked with Gurley to perfect and round Gurley into the type player that has the basketball acumen and shot selection to know the difference between a good shot from three-point land and an ill-advised attempt.
It’s just a small sample of a much broader effect of how much Johnson has helped Gurley become the kind of player that can become even more of a force in the SoCon in his final two years of eligibility. The Fayetteville, GA, product scored a career-high 29 points on an 11-for-14 shooting perforrmance in a win over USC Upstate at Timmons Arena last Decemeber.
Against Auburn, though he didn’t score 29 points, Gurley offered perhaps his most improessive performance of the season, as he posted 21 points and eight boards in the 81-78 overtime loss for the Paladins. In that contest, he connected on 8-of-17 shots from the field, 2-of-4 from three-point range, and was 3-for-4 from the charity stripe. Gurley had six performances in which he scored 20 or more points in 2019-20.
He had two double-doubles during his sophomore season, posting 10 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in a home win over East Tennessee State. In the loss to UNC Greensboro at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Gurley finished by posting 27 points and eight boards.
If there is to be an overall improvement to his game,though he was bigger and stronger last season, Gurley still had trouble at times as a post defender. He sometimes would commit careless fouls, and he would let those types of fouls bother him more than he should have, especially if he had to go to the bench in those situations. Gurley is a player that plays with a lot of energy and emotion, and is one of Furman’s floor leaders.
Another improvement Gurley has to get stronger in is his overall strength with the basketball in the post when he picks up his dribble to pump fake, or go straight up. far too many times last season Gurley had the ball stripped out of his hands in the post, with one of the games that stands out being Furman’s 66-52 loss at Wofford.
Gurley had four turnovers in that contest alone, and had a season-high seven in a win over Winthrop downtown in a Paladin win. One thing in his defense that game was he did suffer a dislocated finger, which might have had something to do with such a high number of turnovers in that particular contest.
All told, Gurley finished the season with 82 turnovers, which ranked tops on the team, with the next highest turnover mark on the team being Noah Gurley, with 69 miscues. As a free throw shooter, Gurley finished the season connecting on 70.1% (89-of-127) of his shots from the charity stripe. He also finished the season with a 53.4% (173-of-324) field goal percentage, which led the Paladins.
On the defensive end of the floor, Gurley completed the season second on the teams in blocks, having swatted away 23 shots, averaging 0.7 blocks-per-game. He also finished the season with 28 total steals, which converts to an average of 0.9 steals-per-game.
Another big key to Furman’s success during the 2020-21 season will be 6-7, 205-lb senior forward Clay Mounce (13.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.1 APG), and he might have been Furman’s best all-around performer on both ends of the floor last season.
The Elkin, N.C., native appeared in all 32 games last season, logging 29 starts. Mounce saw his scoring average improve by 2.5 PPG last season, and connected on six more three-pointers, however, saw his foul shooting decrease from 75% as a sophomore to 60% as a junior.
Mounce finished the 2019-20 campaign connecting on a team-best 39.1% (59-of-151) from three-point range. His 59 triples ranked third on the team in three-pointers made last season, and his 39.1% shooting clip from long range ranked Mounce fifth overall in the SoCon in three-point shooting.
In terms of free throw shooting, Mounce completed the 2019-20 season connecting on 48-of-80 free throws, which coverted to just a 60% shooting clip from the charity stripe.
During his sophomore campaign, Mounce had shot the ball much more effectively from the line, as he was a 75% shooter from the charity stripe, connecting on 33-of-44 foul shots.
The good news for Mounce is that his offensive game was much more aggressive last season, leading to more foul shot attempts. That number should only increase this season with Mounce again looking to be one of Furman’s primary scorers, and especially should with the graduation of Lyons.
Mounce will assume even more of a leadership role for the Paladins this season. He has been called by head coach Bob Richey as maybe his most intelligent floor leader, and one of his most talented all-around players in terms of skill level and shooting ability. He’s also one of the most athletic players on the floor at all times for the Paladins.
He comes into his senior season needing 76 points (924 pts) to reach 1,000 points for his career. He is shooting the ball extremely well from three-point range for his career to this point, connecting on 38.7% (117-of-302) for his career from three. Mounce finished the season with 25 double-figure scoring performances, and posted four games scoring 20 or more points.
He enjoyed two of better performances of the season against both at The Citadel and vs. Loyola-Chicago, scoring 22 points in each of those contests. Mounce’s top performance of the season came on the road in a win at Samford, as he connected on 9-of-12 shots from the field and 5-of-7 from three-point range.
Mounce proved to be one of Furman’s top defenders on the season, as he posted 21 blocks and also posted a team-high 49 steals. His 21 blocks ranked third on the squad, while his 49 steals (1.5 SPG) ranked him fourth overall in the SoCon. The rising senior forward also dished out 66 assists last season, which ranked third on the squad, and his 51.6% (157-of-304) field goal percentage ranked third on the team.
Finalizing what should be the starting trio in the front court for the Paladins will be Jalen Slawson (6.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 26 blks). Slawson has major upside and potential, and might be the player that comes into the 2020-21 season as the most improved on the roster for the Paladins.
The 6-7, 210-lb native of Summerville, S.C., heads into his junior season with full maturity and understanding of his role for the upcoming campaign if the Paladins are to successfully return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 41 years.
One of the critiques Slawson got last season was picking up careless early fouls, and with the Paladins lacking any kind of real viable depth underneath the basket, it caused some issues for the Paladins last season when they had to go smaller.
But when Slawson is on, he has that “it” factor that some players are just born with. He plays with emotion on both ends of the floor, and throughout Bob Richey’s tenure as head coach of the Paladins, that’s something Furman has been able to thrive on and play off of. Evidence of that came in an early home conference win over East Tennessee State.
Slawson chased down ETSU all-conference guard Bo Hodges and blocked Hodge’s layup attempt emphatically off the glass, with the ball caroming off right into the waiting hands of guard Mike Bothwell, who then took a look down the floor and found a wide open Lyons at the right elbow.
Lyons collected himself and splashed home his fourth triple of the night to give the Paladins a 61-49 lead with 3:09 left. That was just one of many examples throughout the 2019-20 season in which Slawson’s energy was able to change the complexion of a basketball game for the Paladins.
Slawson is one of the most athletic performers on the floor at all times for the Paladins. He is both an explosive dunker, as well as being a rim-protecting shot-blocker, having led the Paladins in that category last season, as he swatted away 26 shots on the campaign.
Slawson ended up starting all 32 games last season, and he had some pretty big shoes to fill himself coming into the season, as he was asked to replace Matt Rafferty in the Furman lineup. He scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds and dished out three asssists in the late February win over UNCG.
The Summerville, S.C., native was also extremely important in Furman’s early-season win over Loyola-Chicago saw Slawson post 14 points and nine boards in an early-season victory. Look for the improvement in Slawson to be even more evident this season.
Defensively, Slawson also used his length by getting into passing lanes, narrowing the court for opponents last season, as he registered 35 steals, which ranked him fourth on the team in that category last season. The Summerville, S.C., native also completed the season with nine games in double figures last season. The junior enjoyed a strong effort in the New Year’s win over VMI, as he recorded his first-ever double-double, with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Last season, Slawson finished the season connecting on 49.7% (84-of-169) from the field, and was 26.5% (13-of-49) from three-point range for the season. The improvement of Slawson as an outside threat, and his ability to stay out of foul trouble in games this coming season will all be vital to the success of the Paladins.
Fortunately, this season Slawson should have plenty of depth waiting in the wings behind him this season. Those two players that could prove significant factors in the paint in 2020-21 season, with 6-10 redshirt freshman Jonny Lawrence (Orlando, FL/Lake Howell HS), true freshman Garrett Hien (Charlotte First Assembly Academy/Charlotte, N.C.), and sophomore Ben Beeker (1.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG).
The redshirt year for Lawrence allowed him to gain maturity and like Foster, is a player that could have played and even contributed last season. Lawrence comes from good stock, as his father was a star performer at the University of Florida, so he comes from good basketball stock.
Lawrence committed to Furman just before the start of his senior season as a prep at Lake Howell High School, and has had a year to hone his schools in the post under Johnson, as well as mature.That has proven vital. The best way to describe Lawrence as a player is as a lankier version of Matt Rafferty only a better shooter.
The Orlando, FL., product is also an excellent defender, and isn’t scared to mix it up in the post. Like Foster in the backcourt, the 6-10, forward from Orlando, FL, will be an immediate impact player for the Paladins in the paint this season.
Another player expected to develop into a reliable post presence behind Slawson is 6-9, 220-lb sophomore Ben Beeker.
Beeker was able to log action in 14 games last season. The Hendersonville, N.C., product ended the season shooting 53.8% from the field in limited action, and he enjoyed his best performance of the season in the New Year’s Day win over VMI, scoring a career-high four points.
Beeker is a player that was considered a bit of a project coming in, but his size and overall athleticism, as well as raw talent makes him a potential star in the making under the tutelege of Johnson.
Rounding out the newcomers for the Paladins is Garrett Hien, who committed to Furman last November. Hien is another talented 6-9 wing, who garnered NCISAA 3A all-state honors as a junior and senior.
The 6-9, 205-lb power forward held offers from Appalachian State, Navy, Elon, Toledo, Wofford and San Diego before settling on Furman. According to verbalcommits.com, Hien is rated as a two-star recruit entering the 2020 season.
One of the things coach Richey is excited about when it comes to Hien is his ability to stretch opposing defenses with his ability to shoot from the perimeter. That adds even another element to an already well-rounded game that Hien possesses.
According to Hoops Report, Hien was the No. 17 player in the state at the time when he committed to Furman last fall. He will likely take a redshirt year to fully develop into the type post performer that will be a force in the Southern Conference for years to come.
Frontcourt Grade: A-
—Furman has always had talent in the frontcourt, however, had trouble rebounding and defending in the post last season. Offensively, the Paladins were among the most efficient teams in the country because of this very factor. Help is on the way in terms of size, rebounding and defense with Beeker and Lawrence adding the kind of depth that could make the Paladins a potential favorites or the NCAA Tournament.
This portion of the preview has changed several times, as Furman was supposed to have participated in an MTE, however, the Myrtle Beach Tournament, which once featured Loyola-Chicago, Dayton, Pittsburgh and Nebraska among others, has been canceled all together.
Teams first started to back out of the event, and then the tournament was moved by ESPN to Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando before just being canceled all together as a result of COVID-19 liability issues.
The leaves Richey and the Paladins in a precarious situation when it comes to non-conference games. With teams scrambling to fill out as many games as possible of the 27-game slate allowed by the NCAA, it was already hard for a good mid-major program like Furman to get a game against a power five program–even one of those in the Palmetto State–and now add the uncertainty of a pandemic and it becomes all that much more of a nightmare.
The good news is the SoCon has released its schedule for Furman, and more info about both can be found below.
PDF Preview and 2019-20 Recap: