Overall, Furman’s men’s basketball team had a pretty solid finish to non-conference play heading into SoCon play in-earnest at the end of the month.
The Paladins’ 9-4 record through the first 13 games of the season has seen plenty of ups and a few downs, as Furman prepares to go to work towards claiming a regular-season Southern Conference title, which will see its final two games of the 2022 calendar year come against conference rivals, facing VMI at home on Dec. 29 before closing out the year on the road at Western Carolina on Dec. 31.
Here are some positives that came out of non-conference play for the Paladins.
- Improvement at point guard–At the start of the season, many of us didn’t know how Furman would replace a guy like Alex Hunter at point guard. The fact is, you don’t just replace a player like Hunter–a once in a program type player–however, progress has been made. While the Paladins have three capable performers at the position, it is clear that sophomore J.P. Pegues has begun to separate himself as the No. 1 guy. Pegues helps Furman establish the tempo it wants to play with. During non-conference play already, Pegues has had a pair of career-high scoring performances against both Anderson and Old Dominion. He has four double figure scoring performances and also leads the team in three-pointers made through non-conference play, having connected on 27 triples, and he is connecting at a solid 39.1% from long range this season. Pegues is one of two Paladins with over 50 assists through the first 13 games this season, ranking second on the team, having dished out 52 helpers. All told, Pegues is averaging 8.9 PPG and 3.5 RPG through non-conference play. Certainly, both Joe Anderson and Carter Whitt will both also end up being vital role players at point for the Paladins as the season progresses.
- Bothwell and Slawson–Most of us in the media probably figured that Furman had the two best players in the Southern Conference when the season got underway, and that has proven to be true for the most part this season. For an example of just how dominant the duo can be, one doesn’t have to look any further than Saturday’s game against Stephen F. Austin, as both Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, as the duo combined to score 52 of Furman’s 72 points in the contest, as the Paladins were able to hold off Stephen F. Austin for a 72-70 in the Greenville Winter Invitational this past week. Bothwell scored 21 of Furman’s 28 second-half points helping the Paladins from nearly squandering a 22-point halftime lead. Though Chattanooga’s Jake Stephens seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s player of the week award, Mike Bothwell is a strong candidate to win the individual award this season. Bothwell currently ranks second in the league in points-per-game (20.2 PPG), 12th in field goal percentage (56.3%), second in assists-per-game (59/4.5 APG), fifth in free throw percentage (84.4%), third in assist/turnover ratio (2.3) and third in minutes played (33.2 MPG). Bothwell’s 36 points on his 12-of-14 shooting performance against the Lumberjacks this past week marks the best individual scoring effort by a SoCon player this season. It was also a career-high scoring performance for Bothwell this season, Slawson is also showing why he continues to be one the league’s top defensive players once again, leading the SoCon in steals (2.0 SPG) and ranks third in blocks (1.5 BPG). Both Bothwell and Slawson are a major reason why the Paladins continue to operate with such elite offensive efficiency.
- Offensive efficiency–The Paladins are actually operating at a higher offensive efficiency at this point in the season than they were coming out of non-conference play a year ago. The Paladins currently lead the Southern Conference in scoring offense (82.6 PPG) and field goal percentage (50.0%), while ranking fifth in the league in three-point field goal percentage (34.3%). A major part of Bob Richey’s motion offense is sharing the basketball, and that has once again seen the Paladins better than any other team in the Southern Conference to this point in the season, as the Paladins are averaging 19.5 helpers-per-game. Furman is more often than not going to be able to rely on its offense, but the question will be can they do enough defensively on those few nights the Paladins won’t see the shots fall with the efficiency that they ordinarily see.
- Challenging Schedule–For the second-straight season, Furman has gone out and challenged itself in the non-conference, with trips to the Charleston Classic, where the Paladins faced power five programs Penn State (L, 68-73) and South Carolina (W, 79-60), and also faced a very good Old Dominion (L, 77-82) team. Furman also took a trip to North Carolina State (L, 73-92), facing a Wolfpack team that will likely be in the NCAA Tournament come March. Furman’s four losses during non-conference play came to teams that have a combined record of 33-13 as of Dec. 21. The one loss that the Paladins would likely wish to have back is an 85-82 home loss to High Point. Furman’s best wins came against Belmont (W, 89-74), Stephen F. Austin (W, 72-70), on the road at Appalachian State (W, 65-61), and the aforementioned win over South Carolina.
Where must Furman improve if it hopes to cut down the nets in Asheville:
As talented and as deep as Furman is as a basketball team, it won’t get where it wants to be in March if the Paladins don’t improve defensively. The good news is improvement on the defensive end of the floor isn’t dependent on talent, which means the problem can be fixed. Like rebounding the basketball, which was a problem for the Paladins last season and has seen steady improvement this season, defense is 100% an effort-based aspect of the game of basketball. Furman’s two best halves defensively were on the road at App State in the opening half, as well as the opening half against Stephen F. Austin. So, the proof is there to show the Paladins can get it done on that end of the floor with some efficiency.
In Furman’s four losses to High Point, Old Dominion, Penn State and North Carolina State, the Nittany Lions shot the lowest field goal percentage, connecting on 45.8% of its shots from the field, while Old Dominion easily shot the best of any team against the Paladins this season, connecting on a blistering 64.6% from the field for the game. The Monarchs are the one outlier in terms of shooting the ball, as that loss in the Charleston Classic had to do more with ODU just making tough shots than it did Furman’s lack of defense. The other three losses, however, show the Paladins have plenty of room to improve.
Non-Conference Grade: A-
Overall, if you’re Bob Richey, you have to be pretty pleased with how things have gone so far for Furman. Sure, you’d like to have maybe the Penn State game and the High Point games back, but overall, other than improvement on the defensive end of the floor, this team still looks like the team most of us thought it would be heading into Southern Conference play, which is the team to beat heading into conference play. With that said, Furman hasn’t looked dominant, and they aren’t a team that is just going to show up and still beat you by playing their C game. All in all, it has been a pretty solid performance through the non-conference.
SoCon Power Poll:
- Furman (9-4)–The Paladins have looked the part and have a 10-day layoff before the start of SoCon play. Furman must see some improvement defensively, however, if it hopes to achieve its goals in conference play and in March in Asheville.
- Chattanooga (8-4)–The Mocs have a game tonight against Georgia, as the Mocs look to notch a third big win for the league over a power conference foe.
- Wofford (8-5)–The Terriers played their last four games of non-conference play without head coach Jay McAuley, who is on a forced leave of absence. The Terriers have gone 3-1 under interim head coach Dwight Perry, including a huge 67-62 win over Texas A&M yesterday.
- UNCG (6-6)–The Spartans have shown they are a worthy contender, battling Arkansas before losing by five to the top 10 Razorbacks. UNCG’s ability to defend will keep them in it.
- Samford (6-6)–The Bulldogs have lost six-straight heading into tonight’s contest against Belmont. After losing by 15 at Furman early in the season, the Bruins rebounded with a big overtime win at Chattanooga this past Sunday, and look for their second-straight win over a SoCon program tonight in the friendly confines of the Curb Events Center in Nashville. The Bulldogs have been hampered by injuries to point guard Ques Glover and sharpshooting guard Cooper Kaifes. When they return, it should again transform the Bulldogs into a contender.
- Western Carolina (7-6)–The Catamounts completed non-conference play with a lopsided, 117-50, win over Toccoa Falls yesterday. With guard Tre Jackson and big man Tyzhaun Claude, expect the Catamounts to be a dark horse in the league title race throughout the 2022-23 season.
- Mercer (6-6)–Mercer, like Samford, is a team that seemingly hasn’t been completely healthy all season. They have an important game against Troy tonight, which would be a good win for the league if head coach Greg Gary’s team can come up with a big dub on the road tonight.
- East Tennessee State (4-8)–ETSU has lost its last four games by a combined 10 points, including a gut-wrenching 74-73 loss to UNC Asheville on a buzzer-beating three=pointer from Drew Pember last time out at Freedom Hall. The Bucs look to close out non-conference play on a positive note tonight, heading back to Baton Rouge–a place where the Bucs came away with a 74-63 win over the Bayou Bengals nearly three years ago to the day.
- The Citadel (5-7)–The Bulldogs will look ahead to Southern Conference play after dropping a tough 81-74 contest to North Carolina Central Tuesday night. The Bulldogs will open league play Dec. 29 when Chattanooga pays a visit for a 7 p.m. contest.
- VMI (5-7)–With wins over Radford and Navy in non-conference play, new head coach Andrew Wilson has acclimated his Keydets well in preparation for the tough Southern Conference slate. The Keydets close out non-conference play tonight with a trip to New York to face Fordham.