|Furman senior Devin Sibley. Photo courtesy of Furman.
"Connected" has been a keyword for the Furman men's basketball team under first-year coach Bob Richey this season. The more connected the Paladins play - on both ends the court, the better the results thus far.
Connections can also help off the court. After signing Geoff Beans in November of 2013, the Paladins had one more scholarship available going into the next year prior to the 2013-14 season. They were looking for a guard, and Richey hit the recruiting trail to take a look at three in Tennessee. As he made his way back home from Nashville, Richey called a high school friend in Knoxville.
"I told him I want to see the best player in the city that nobody knows about," Richey said. "He said, 'you need go over to Karns High School. There's a kid named Devin Sibley over there and nobody is recruiting him.' "
Upon visiting the school, Richey saw transcripts and noted Sibley was a great student. Then he met with Karns' coach, got three films and drove back straight to his office to watch them.
"I called Niko (Medved) and told him that this kid is an all-conference player," Richey said. "He's a three-level scorer, who's 6-2, athletic and strong. He' got great balance and great hands."
After watching Sibley's film, Richey was left wondering why no one was recruiting him. Richey believes it was due to the fact that Sibley played on a small, local AAU team and for a high school without a high reputation.
"He was just off the map, so we really started recruiting him hard and went up there a few times," Richey said. "You've got a week to sign in November and if you don't sign my midnight on that last night, you can't sign again until April.
"I'll never forget I came up here to the office that night and the fax came in at 10:30 p.m. on the last day of the signing period. I came in just to make sure it made it through."
Sibley went on to lead Karns to a 23-7 record his senior year, and he led the entire state of Tennessee in scoring.
"Getting him signed early was an important piece of the equation," Richey said. "That was just the persistence of us and basically having faith in our evaluation."
Sibley said his visits to Furman made him want to come back for good. While the program was coming off a 7-24 season the year before he signed, he was impressed with the people he met on each trip. Getting to know the fellow members of that signing class made him eager to play with them.
"It really just felt like home, and it was close to home too," Sibley said. "My mom and dad thought it was the best place for me to go, so it all just added up."
Making a splash
After 770 points (25.7 per game) as a senior in high school, Sibley didn't take a break from scoring the next season. Sibley had five 20-point games, including a 29-point performance at ETSU, on his way to being named Southern Conference Freshman of the Year by the league's media and coaches. For his role in guiding the Paladins on their run to the SoCon championship game that season, he also earned All-Tournament honors.
"That tournament helped his realize how good we could be and then we got better every year since then," Sibley said. "It's been fun to be a part of us just taking off."
Last season, Sibley added more hardware to his trophy case when the media and coaches voted him as the SoCon Player of the Year. Sibley averaged 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists last season, and hit 44.9 percent of his 3-pointers.
It gave Furman back-to-back seasons with the SoCon's top player, as Stephen Croone - another Richey recruit - won the previous year.
"Going into Devin's junior year, Stephen was gone and everybody was picking us fifth and we snuck up on everybody. We knew we were going to be good even if nobody else did," Richey said. "Everybody thought we were going to drop off with Stephen leaving, but Devin emerges."
Sibley enters this weekend's SoCon Tournament as the seventh-leading scorer in Furman history with 1,808 points.
"He's got a very unique ability to score from all kind of different spots on the floor," Richey said. "He's got a great ability to finish around the basket and a unique combination at this level of length, athleticism and speed. On top of all that, he can make shots from the perimeter."
For Sibley, that personal success is a byproduct of what Furman has done as a team. A big part of that team success is the program's family atmosphere, which extends beyond the court. For example, I personally have seen plenty of basketball players at Furman baseball games over these past four years, but's it never just one or two guys. It's always three or four, and the groups are always different.
"We always hang out together off the court, which helps build chemistry," Sibley said. "When we get on the court, it helps us just read each other even better. We know what each other is going to do and where they're going to be on the court. The more you get to know somebody, the more you know their tendencies.
"Our coaches have done a great job of recruiting good guys that can play basketball, but have a bigger mindset of just helping the team win."
Bumps in the road
There's been no sneaking up on anybody this year for Furman or Sibley. Sibley is now atop every opponent's scouting list and he's game-planned around. Richey said there's been one specific way opponents have tried to slow him down.
"They've made a very strong intent not to foul him. When you compare his game from this year to last year, he got to the free throw line a lot more then and he hasn't been as efficient there," Richey said. "They're really trying to take charges. A lot of people are falling down when there's contact created with him because of his strength.
"That comes with the territory. If you're the reigning player of the year, they're not going to make it easy for you. That element wasn't there last year and a lot of people don't realize that."
To Richey's point about the fouls this season, Sibley has 101 free throw attempts, by far the fewest in his career and 61 fewer than last season. Meanwhile, there's been the offensive fouls. From Dec. 2 to Jan. 18, Sibley was called for at least one offensive foul in all 10 games against Division I opponents with a total of 15. By comparison, Sibley was called for 16 offensive fouls over 34 games last season.
This didn't include a ridiculous technical foul at UNC-Wilmington that Sibley was hit with after driving to the basket and drawing a foul. After the UNCW fouler was shaken up, officials reviewed the play and determined that Sibley - after soaring to the basket and being fouled in mid-air - had enough body control to intentionally kick the defender.
A few days later, Sibley returned home as Furman played at Tennessee. There was anything but home cooking for him that night. While he scored 22 points and pulled down seven rebounds, that all happened in just 28 minutes thanks a pair of offensive foul calls that sidelined him early in the second half. The second one, which saw Sibley turn as he caught an inbounds pass and collide with the defender before he could take a dribble 60 feet from the basket, gave him four fouls with 13:10 left. Furman's upset bid came short 66-61 that night.
Against ETSU at home, Sibley injured his shooting hand with eight minutes to go and didn't return in Furman's 61-60 loss.
After coming back fully healthy two games later, Sibley seemed to get past the foul situation and began to hit his stride. He had a 23-point game against Western Carolina and a 21-point effort in a win at Mercer. Sibley scored 18 two days later at The Citadel, but missed a pair of free throws late in regulation in a game that Furman lost in overtime.
"That really messed with him," Richey said of the missed free throws. "It created a lot of self-doubt and frustration."
With a ton of pressure put on himself, Sibley had a poor game the next time out against UNCG. After that home loss, Sibley began coming off the bench. While taking a reigning player of the year out of the starting lineup may have been a bold move for a first-year coach, Richey was simply trying to help unload that pressure.
"That was hard for me because I love him to death. ... What I told him was, 'you let the pressure exceed the pleasure of this. You've got to get back to having fun, being free and going out there and enjoying the game,' " Richey said. "The more he does that, the better he plays."
As it turns out, having an outstanding player to bring in off the bench hasn't been such a bad thing. The Paladins haven't lost since the switch and carry a six-game winning streak into Saturday's quarterfinal game against No. 6 seed Western Carolina at the SoCon Tournament.
Richey is proud of the way Sibley has responded every game since the change, capped by his showing in Furman's 79-76 win at ETSU in Sunday's regular season finale. With the game tied 71-71, Sibley's four-point play with 1:26 left put the Paladins in front for good. He finished with 17 points, six rebounds and hit 5-of-7 free throws.
"It's one of his most complete games of the year. ... He was really good defensively, attacked the rim on offense, connected on his threes and made his free throws," Richey said. "They way he's responded to this slightly adjusted role is a credit to his character. ... He's playing with a lot better spirit about him than he was three weeks ago."
Whether he's coming off the bench or starting, Sibley knows what it takes to ensure he spends plenty of time on the court when called on.
"It all about playing as hard as I can and contributing," Sibley said. "That's all I'm thinking about."
Through all the highs and lows this season, Sibley still leads the Paladins at 14.8 points per game and is pulling down a career-high five rebounds a game. That earned him All-SoCon first team honors by the media and coaches.
Sibley will be content to look back on his accomplishments at some point well down the road. He chooses not to reflect on the ups or the downs of the past. Sibley's also not looking ahead to the potential pro career that awaits.
"Anybody that worries about the future - or the past - too much will lose. ... It's all about right now," Sibley said. "I think we all have the same mentality. The next task at hand is to win that first one on Saturday."