Furman set to battle Belmont in blockbuster mid-major clash
Game 3: Furman (2-0/SoCon) at Belmont (1-1/OVC)
The Venue: Curb Events Center/Nashville, TN
Time and How To Watch: 7:30 p.m. EST/ESPN+
The Series: Tied 1-1
Last Meeting: Belmont 68, Furman 61 (Nov. 21, 2000)
The Coaches: Furman–Bob Richey (91-35/5th yr); Belmont-Casey Alexander (52-11/3rd yr)
Furman will look to continue its strong start to the 2021-22 basektball season when it travels to the Curb Events Center Monday night to take on Belmont in a blockbuster matchup between two mid-major programs that always seem to make their way into NCAA Tournament at-large conversations in recent seasons.
Somewhat surprisingly, it marks only the third meeting between the Paladins and Bruins on the college basketball hardwood, but it will mark the first of four meetings over the next four seasons between the two in what will be one of the more exciting mid-major series over the next four years.
The Bruins were built into a perennial OVC power and a consistent NCAA Tournament qualifier under former legendary head coach Rick Byrd (805-career wins), who guided a program Richey has admired from afar over the past several seasons. Byrd announced his retirement a couple of years ago after leading the Bruins to an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, as well as an opening round win.
The 2018-19 Bruins were arguably among the best in program history, and Belmont hasn’t missed a beat under its new leader, in Casey Alexander, who heads into his third season at the helm of the Belmont hoops program. The Bruins will begin the season on the outskirts of the national top 25 poll, as the Bruins will start the season just on the outskirts of the national Top 25 rankings, and are once again picked by most to not only be the Ohio Valley Conference favorite, but also expected to once again be a Top 40 program.
The Bruins’ lowest win total over the past five years has been 23 games back in the 2016-17 season, and all five starters return from a club that posted a 26-4 overall record last season, which included. The three players that will comprise the nucleus of the team this season will point guard Grayson Murphy, along with 6-11 center Nick Musyzinski and 6-8 forward Caleb Hollander.
The Bruins are very much a team built like Furman, with position-less players that can shoot from just about any spot on the floor. The Paladins and Bruins will be facing each other on the college basketball hardwood for just the third time, with the two having split the all-time series, 1-1.
Furman was able to come up with a 72-56 win in Greenville during former head coach Larry Davis’ first season. That win came late in what came in its first of a four-year transitional process from NAIA to Division I basketball. Similar to Chattanooga in the SoCon, the Bruins have been a national power at every level of basketball, winning the 1994-95 NAIA national crown with a 37-2 overall record and an 18-0 mark in the TCAC.
The last time they met, Belmont returned the favor, as the Bruins were able to score a 68-61 win during the 2000-01 season in Nashville. The first two road games of the season will test as much as any road trip all season, especially during the non-conference slate. One of Belmont’s four losses last season, however, came on its home floor to Samford in December.
The Bruins have made nine NCAA Tourmanemt appearances since 2006, including having participated in both the 2019 and ‘20 editions of the Big Dance. Since 2010, the Bruins have one of the top homecourt records in college basketball, boasting a 126-11 mark from 2010-19
A Look at the Bruins:
Belmont sports a 1-1 record coming into Monday night’s contest against the Paladins, having dropped a 92-80 decision on the road at Ohio in the season opener, while opening the 2021-22 season in style at home Saturday against Evansville Saturday evening, posting what was an impressive 81-43 win over the visiting Aces.
The Bruins are led by guard Grayson Murphy (12.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG), who is the 2021-22 preseason OVC co-Player of the Year. In the second game of the season against the Aces, Murphy shined, as he posted 16 points and five steals in helping Belmont breeze past Evansville.
Murphy was held to just eight points in the season opener against the Bobcats, and is a player that started the season on the Lou Henson Award Watch List, which is given to the best player in mid-major basketball each season. In addition to his 16 points and five thefts in the win over the Aces, Murphy also contributed six rebounds and dished out six helpers. He currently ranks fourth in NCAA Division I basketball in career active assists, and is the lone player in college basketball to record at least 900 points, 550 assists, 550 rebounds and 150 steals in his career. Murphy is a graduate senior.
In the backcourt, Murphy will team with graduate senior guard Luke Smith (7.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and 6-6 junior Ben Sheppard (18.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 APG). Smith is the Bruins’ “glue guy” offensively, and is one of the veteran leaders in the backcourt for Belmont. Smith was named a preseason All-OVC member and went for seven points, dished out five assists and recorded five rebounds last time out against Evansville.
Sheppard is the Bruins most-talented scoring threat, posting a career-high 25 points in the 12-point loss at Ohio, while posting 11 poiints, three rebounds and an assist last time out against the Aces.
Sheppard saw action in 27 games lasts season for the Bruins, recording 11 doiuble-figure scoring efforts. He is Belmont’s top perimeter defender, and will likely be a matchup to try and contain Furman’s Mike Bothwell.
In the paint, the Bruins boast plenty of experience in the form of 6-11 center Nick Murszynski (14.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG) and 6-6 forward Michael Shanks (3.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG) round out the starting five for Belmont heading into the clash with the Paladins.
Murszynski is one of the top big men in all of mid-major basketball, and he will be the most talented big man the Paladins have faced to date in 2021-22. Murszynski is one of four Bruins to have already completed their coursework and received their bachelor’s degree. Murszynski scored 18 points in the season opener at Ohio, while also posting three boards and dishing out six assists.
In the home-opening win over Evansville, Murszynski posted 10 points to go along with five rebounds, three assists and a block. Along with Murphy, Murszynski is the preseason OVC Player of the Year.
The top player coming off the bench for the Bruins is Frank Jakubicek (6.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG), who posted appeared in 20 games as a freshman last season, and finished with eight points in the season-opening loss to Ohio.
All told, the Bruins return 97% of its offensive production from a team that went 26-4 overall last season and claimed its 12th regular-season conference title in the last 16 years.
Furman’s Projected Starting Five:
G–Alex Hunter (Gr/Sr Raleigh, N.C.)–Alex Hunter decided to return for his fifth year allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has posted 22 and 17 points in wins over both North Greenville and Louisville, respectively, to open the 2021-22 season. Through the first two games, Hunter is averaging 19.5 PPG and 5.0 RPG, while dishing out 4.5 helpers-per-game. In the win over the Cardinals Friday night, Hunter became the 48th player in program to cross the 1,000-point threshold, and did so with crucial three-pointers down the stretch, which helped the Paladins keep pace with its ACC foe. Hunter topped the SoCon in assist/turnover ratio (2.68) and has ranked no lower than 17th nationally in that category nationally in each of the past three seasons. Hunter was a preseason All-SoCon selection coming into the 2021-22 campaign.
G–Mike Bothwell (Sr/Cleveland Heights, OH)–Led Furman with 30 points on a 7-of-17 shooting performance, and 13-for-15 effort from the line in Furman’s 80-72 overtime win at Louisville on Friday night. Bothwell, a preseason all-conference selection, had 22 points in the season-opening win over North Greenville. Through the first two games, is averaging 26.0 PPG and 4.0 RPG. Bothwell, who ranked third in the SoCon in steals last season, did not have a steal last time out against Louisville, but did manage to record three streals in the season-opening 118-66 win over North Greenville.
G–Conley Garrison (Gr. Tr/Drury University)–In Friday night’s win at Louisville, it was Conley Garrison that came up with one of the biggest shots of the contest, with the Paladins trailing, 41-35, early in the second half. Garrison knocked down a triple from the corner to get the Paladins back within three, giving the Paladins an early charge of the second half. It was Garrison’s lone points of the night after finishing with 14 points in the season-opening win over North Greenville. Garrison contributed in other areas, however, as he posted four boards dished out a team-high five assists and had a steal in the win at Louisville. Through the first two games of the season, Garrison is averaging 8.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG, while dishing out 5.5 helpers-per-game to lead the Paladins in that statistical category. Garrison came to Furman after garnering All Great Lakes Valley Conference honors three-straight seasons.
F–Jalen Slawson (Sr./Summerville, S.C.)–Like Garrison, Jalen Slawson contributed in other impressive areas than scoring in Friday night’s win at Louisville, and did so despite being saddled with foul trouble for much of the second half. Slawson’s team-leading nine boards helped the Paladins posted a 43-41 rebounding advantage over its ACC opposition. He had five points to go along with nine boards in the win over the Cardinals, and opened the season with a 19-point effort in the 118-66 win over North Greenville. The 6-7 senior from Summerivlle has made the transition from the five to the four, transitioning into that new role following the transfer of Noah Gurley to Alabama. Coming into Monday night’s contest against the Bruins, Slawson is averaging 12.0 PPG and is averaging a team-best 8.5 RPG.
C–Garrett Hien (So./Charlotte, N.C.)–Garrett Hien had his best performance as a Paladin in the 80-72 overtime win over Louisville, posting a career-high 18 points to go with eight boards and three assists. Hien’s clutch turnaround jumper with 1:41 remaining as the shot-clock buzzer sounded allowed the Paladins to assume a 76-69 lead in the extra session, and took the wind of out of the sails from the Cardinals. Hien hit the first four three-pointers of his career in the win over Louisville, as he went 4-for-6 from downtown, showcasing an element of his game that he has added to his overall offensive game during the off-season. He enters Monday night’s contest averaging 13.5 PPG and 7.0 RPG.