|Furman coach Bob Richey talks to his team. Photo courtesy of Furman.|
Coming off another record-setting season for wins, the Furman men's basketball enters this weekend's Southern Conference Tournament as the No. 3 seed. The Paladins are one of a handful of SoCon teams that would not be a surprise to see cutting down the nets on Monday.
Four years ago, none of this seemed possible. It was four years ago today that the Paladins wrapped up the 2013-14 regular season with a home loss to Georgia Southern. Eight days later, the teams met again in the first round of the SoCon Tournament and Niko Medved's first season as head coach ended with a record of 9-21.
Upon taking the job in April of 2013, it might have been easy for Medved to completely clean house after inheriting a team that went 7-24 this year before. However, Medved's first move was to retain one assistant from the previous staff - Bob Richey. It didn't hurt that Richey was the recruiter and position coach of Stephen Croone, who averaged 9.9 points and 4.0 assists per game as a freshman in 2012-13. Croone, who also broke the school record for assists in a game that season with 14, went on to become the fifth-leading scorer in school history.
After retaining Richey, Medved said, "We are very fortunate that Bob decided to stay at Furman. Bob is a talented young coach and an outstanding recruiter. He has a gift for connecting with people and will be an intricate part of helping Furman basketball reach new heights."
Not only is Medved a heck of a basketball coach, he might also be a psychic.
The latest of those "new heights" came this season in Richey's first year as head coach as Furman set the school record for regular season wins with 22. Last season, it set school records for conference wins (14), road wins (12) and overall wins (23). Two seasons ago, it set the school record for home wins (14), including 11 consecutive.
While players like Croone, Kris Acox, Kendrec Ferrara, Larry Wideman and others helped begin to steer Furman's ship in the right direction, it was this year's senior class of Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Devin Sibley that was the nucleus of the transformation of the program. Despite going 11-22 as freshmen in 2014-15, this year's senior class is the second-winningest in school history with a record of 75-59. Only the senior class of 1980 has more wins at 80-37.
"Their pride in Furman and their desire to be at Furman was so high, so early. That was a critical piece of increasing their development," Richey said. "When they showed they really enjoyed being here and had a mission of what they're trying to do, that's pretty infectious. That really started to get to guys that came in after them and it just kind of grew and grew."
No shoes, no problem
So how did Medved and his staff convince this program-changing class to commit to and sign with a program that had gone 16-45 overall and 6-28 in the SoCon in the two seasons combined before they got to Furman? It goes back to another part of Medved's quote about Richey, "a gift for connecting with people."
That word "connected" has been used by Richey more than any other this season. When the Paladins are at their very best, it's when they're most connected on both ends of the floor. That also meant - and still means - Furman taking a different approach when it comes to recruiting.
"When you're going through a rebuilding situation, the most important thing you have to do is identify the people that you feel like are going to help you in the long-term," Richey said. "First, we had to get great human beings. We had to stay clear of entitlement and guys that just thought talent was going to be enough. We had to get people that were able to connect.
"Evaluate the film second. Evaluate the person first. They both have to check off."
Furman's place in the college basketball landscape also factored in recruiting.
"We had to get off the grid a little bit. We couldn't go sit at the Nike, Adidas or Under Armour tournament. We had to go look for non-shoe AAU teams and the undervalued stock," Richey said. "It was hard. ... We just had to go through a ton of names, a ton of films and keep calling and calling."
In addition to looking at players from under-the-radar AAU teams, Furman coaches also paid attention to the recruits' high school teams. In trying to build a winner, the staff recruited winners.
In their senior years: Beans' high school team went 22-2; Davis' team was ranked No. 1 in Division III in Ohio; Fowler's team went 29-2; Sibley's team went 23-7.
"It was just a group of guys that had low AAU reputations, but winning high school reputations and just very good people from very good support systems," Richey said. "We felt like all four of these guys would come in here and work hard to develop.
"We knew we had to invest in them. They weren't necessarily ready to play as many minutes as they had to play as freshmen."
Growing pains and the run
They may have not been ready as freshmen, but each showed glimpses of what they could do that season.
Beans drained the first three 3-pointers he tried in his collegiate debut against Liberty and scored 21 in the next game against Samford. Davis scored 20 in the regular season finale against Wofford. Fowler started all 33 games that season, averaging 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, on his way to a Furman-record 125 career starts. Sibley scored at least 20 points five times that season, including a 29-point performance at ETSU, and earned SoCon Freshman of the Year honors.
Fowler and Davis dove head-first into college basketball as they played 34 and 33 minutes, respectively, in the Paladins' 75-40 season-opening loss to the College of Charleston. That was the first of seven losses that season by at least 14 points, including five by at least 25 points. Since Dec. 19, 2015, Furman has just six losses by 14 points or more - only one by more than 19.
As sourly as that season began against Charleston, it nearly ended in storybook fashion. Despite a last-place finish in the SoCon, the Paladins made a magical run to the SoCon Tournament championship before falling to Wofford 67-64. Along with Ferrara, the four freshmen were the players on the court when the final horn sounded that Monday night.
One final chance
Now the seniors have one more shot to try to walk off the U.S. Cellular Center's court on that Monday night as SoCon champions. That path begins in Saturday's quarterfinals when the third-seeded Paladins face No. 6 seed Western Carolina at approximately 8:30 p.m.
Richey hopes his team will use its experiences from the prior three tournaments this weekend. Unlike those seasons, Furman enters this year's tournament on a roll with six consecutive wins. The Paladins will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of an upset loss to seventh-seeded Samford in last year's quarterfinals.
"You win 21 in the regular season, finish in a three-way tie for first, and for the first time since probably 1990, you go in with any kind of expectation," Richey said of last year's tournament. "I think the combination of that and the fact that we had lost two of the final three in the regular season, we didn't walk onto that court with the confidence we had two weeks prior.
"I think the players would tell you now there was just so much pressure to go win the whole thing. I don't think we were looking past (Samford), we were just looking at the tournament in a cumulative lens. That can really increase pressure."
Having four guys who know what it takes to get to the finals certainly can't hurt Furman's chances this season. While a No. 10 seed should never feel any kind of pressure in postseason conference tournament, Richey would like for his team to somehow find that same feeling this weekend in Asheville.
"The approach we have to take is learn from your freshman year. Go out there and cut loose. Just play the game the right way and fixate on how we play. Don't worry about anything besides possession-by-possession, how can we play to our standard," Richey said. "The second thing is that you've got to go one game at a time. There's nothing you can get done until you beat Western Carolina. We have to have that focus."
This year's tournament will cap what's been an exciting year in a deep, competitive SoCon. Whether the Paladins punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980 or not, emotions will surely be running high.
"I'm going to miss them like crazy. ... I tell them all the time, 'you guys are going to leave here with a degree in team,' and that's the truth," Richey said. "That will probably carry them more through life than some of the other pieces of their experience here.
"These guys are Furman through and through and it's not just basketball. They love this place and they just wanted to see something great happen here."