|Furman senior John Davis III. Photo courtesy of Furman.|
In the final weeks of the recruiting season in March of 2014, Furman had already signed Geoff Beans and Devin Sibley and received a commitment from Daniel Fowler. That left one scholarship available. Coach Bob Richey, then an assistant and recruiter for Niko Medved, wanted a point guard - a very specific type of point guard.
"I thought it was critical in that class that we get an alpha," Richey said. "Not that the others weren't but I knew at the point spot, we were going to need that very serious, tough-minded, competitive guy."
For Furman coaches, persistence paid off. After flights to Cleveland were cancelled by snow on three different planned recruiting trips to visit Davis, Richey finally beat the weather.
"The neatest thing about when I was finally able to get up there is that I changed my view of his game. I started about five rows up at half-court, then I wanted to get down on the baseline and watch from the floor level to get a look into his eyes," Richey said. "That view told me we needed to go after him. He just had the look of an extreme competitor."
Richey got to meet Davis and his parents following that game. He was impressed with Davis' demeanor and his support system at home. For Davis, the positive vibe was mutual.
"We probably talked for an hour-and-a-half after that game," Davis said. "Right after he left, I told myself that I trusted him and I'm going to Furman. He hadn't even offered me yet, but I knew.
"At that moment, I didn't know that he would be someone that would actually change my life. As long as he and I are on this earth, he will be my life mentor. He will be somebody I can call when I get married or when I get out in the real world and meet some adversity. Or when the doctor tells me, 'its a boy,' so I can tell him to recruit my son."
That relationship was such that when the Furman head coaching position became available after Medved left for Drake, Davis and his teammates campaigned for Richey to get the job. That included leaning on their parents for advice on presenting Furman AD Mike Buddie with "the best e-mail that he's seen all year." Davis said he will never forget waking up to the news on Twitter that he'd been hoping for when it became official.
"I asked Daniel to lend me his car and I drove up to Coach Richey's office. I went right in and gave him a hug. A few tears were shed," Davis said. "Nothing was said for a few minutes before I just told him, 'thank you.' That's all I needed to tell him."
Deja vu all over again
Davis said coming to Furman was like "Beachwood all over again." When he was an eighth-grader, he had a chance to play basketball at another high school with a winning tradition in basketball. Instead, he stayed put and led a downtrodden Beachwood program into the No. 1-ranked team in Ohio Division III as a senior.
"My parents and I had a vision for Beachwood when I was in the eighth grade, then we had a vision for Furman when I decided to come here," Davis said. "We like being the underdogs and turning nothing into something."
Of the four seniors, Davis was the one that didn't play as much early. That was primarily due to the presence of the fifth-leading scorer in school history, Stephen Croone, his first two seasons. So while everyone got an idea of the other three, there were still unknowns about Davis. Davis' numbers slightly improved from his freshman to sophomore year, but rose quite a bit in the last two seasons.
Davis is second on the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game this year, to go along with 79 assists, 47 steals and only 44 turnovers. His scoring average has increased from 3.8 points per game as freshman, 4.5 as a sophomore and 8.9 last season. His shooting percentage has gone from 32.8 to 33.3 to 41.6 to 48.0 over these four seasons.
"It's been awesome to see that growth. I think he's progressed more than anyone and that's why we took him," Richey said. "Having the desire to develop, that puzzle piece was evaluated. He just goes to work every day and competes."
Letting his play do the talking is something that teammates over the years have noticed, and often been confused by. He said at least one person on every team he's ever been on has asked him why he never talks on the court. Davis said it's just not who he is. Playing confident but not cocky has come through postgame talks with his mother.
"She either says, 'John Davis III, you went straight to work tonight,' or she tells me, 'you took the night off.' When she tells me I went straight to work, I know I had a good game," Davis said. "The only two things on my checklist are did we win, and was I the best point guard on the floor. None of the other stats matter to me."
Furman's bread-and-butter for turning around the program has been defense. The Paladins keep track of deflections and have made a living in points off turnovers. The flipside of that is protecting the ball as well. Furman leads the Southern Conference in turnover margin (+3.23 per game) and turnovers committed (11.7 per game). That begins with Davis and for him, that began a long time ago at home.
"When I was about eight years old after a YMCA game, we stopped at a red light and my dad turns around and starts grilling me because I had three turnovers," Davis said. "I think I had about 18 points, but he didn't care. He just hates turnovers. So I kind of get that from him. It's just been ingrained in me.
"They (parents) are like a head coach and assistant, but my mom's always the head coach."
Davis is a throwback kind of player, not only in on-court mannerisms and focus, but also in his play. Many players these days either drive to the basket or pull up for a 3-pointer and Davis is adept at both. The difference is, he consistently knocks down 12-foot jumpshots. If there was any Paladin who drives into the paint, pulls up and drains a rainbow jumper, there's a pretty good chance it's Davis.
There's also a pretty good chance a teammate is getting an assist on the play. Furman is one of 21 teams in the country with at least 500 assists, ranking No. 18 with 505. Davis said it's fun playing with a bunch of other guys that have point guard passing ability and it helps remind him that he has to keep the ball moving too.
"He's just obsessed with competing in every aspect of the game and the program," Richey said. "He just has this fearlessness to him. The moment doesn't really get too big for him. I think that's because of his preparation and how committed he is outside of the game."
While he did not get a ton of playing time as a freshman, Davis gave an early glimpse of what he could do in the regular season finale. With Croone sidelined by an injury, Davis was called on to replace him against SoCon champion Wofford. After scoring a total of 28 points over the other 17 SoCon games, Davis poured in 20 that afternoon as the Paladins just missed the upset, falling 62-60.
That gave Davis confidence going into the SoCon Tournament that saw the 10th-seeded Paladins make a run to the final.
"In the semifinal game against Mercer, we looked like dead ducks in the first half. We got down 12 with about two-and-a-half minutes to go and he came in and hit two huge shots right before halftime," Richey said. "With he and Stephen out there together, his defense and intensity just started to bring some more energy to what we were doing.
"All the guys stepped up in that run, but I thought John was the one that elevated the most from what he'd been doing in the regular season. That gave us a huge lift."
While the Paladins went 11-22 that season, Davis said the whole year was a learning process. Everything began to click that final week of the regular season and on into the tournament.
"I feel like we had to take all of those losses and go through those woes and moments of adversity because that's what really helped us in the long run," Davis said. "We wake up now with a smile our our face because we're in a winning program. It took hard work and dedication to get there. We don't take that for granted."
Three years after providing that huge lift that Richey mentioned, Davis is looking to do the same this weekend. While the focus is on Western Carolina, who the Paladins will play at approximately 8:30 p.m. Saturday, nothing would be a better final chapter for the seniors than a SoCon championship.
"We've experienced all three levels. We've been to the finals, been to the semifinals and got knocked out in the quarterfinals," Davis said. "Now it's our turn to win it. The story couldn't be written any better, but we're focused on taking it one step at a time."
Furman fan events at the SoCon Tournament