Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Paladins pass on CIT, CBI invites, look ahead

Jordan Lyons will be one of the key returning leaders
to Furman next season. Photo courtesy of Furman.
The Furman men's basketball team has picked up plenty of postseason experience the past two seasons with five games combined over the last two Tournaments. For the 2017-18 Paladins, it's only postseason destination would either be the NCAA or NIT. Furman declined invitations from the CIT and CBI tournaments over the weekend, wrapping up another record-breaking season with a mark of 23-10.

The Paladins tied the school record for wins in a season for the second year in a row. The only other Furman teams with 23 wins came in the 1979-80 (23-7) and 2016-17 (23-12) seasons. Despite going 11-22 as freshmen in the 2014-15 season, this year's senior class finished as the second-winningest in school history at 76-59. Only the senior class of 1980 (80-37) finished with more victories.

"When this group of seniors set out their goals for this season, they obviously wanted to go play in the NCAA Tournament. Either do that or win a league (regular season) championship, which would allow us to play in the NIT," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "A lot of people have opted out besides us, teams like ETSU, Belmont and Northeastern. In the pay-for-play format, it's not quite as appealing for this group as it has been in years past when we were building it."

While these lesser tournaments are a way to somewhat prepare for the future, they can also hold things up. When Furman advanced to the CIT semifinals last year, that game was played the Wednesday before the Final Four.

"It almost knocks out your whole spring by the time you get back," Richey said. "After these two weeks off (since the SoCon Tournament), we're going to get things cranked back up on Monday with a five-week individual development plan. I think that's going to bode well for this group as opposed to continuing to practice.
"Investing in their development and individual growth and making sure we finish strong in the spring will springboard us into summer when we have our whole team here."

After what Furman fans have witnessed the past four years, it's going to be strange next season to not see Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Devin Sibley out there. While those seniors helped massively change the culture of the program, it's going to be fun to see what the next chapter brings.

There's quite a few players returning who've been key parts of past success. Junior Matt Rafferty will be the leading returning scorer (11.2 points per game) next year. He also led this year's team in shooting (59.8 percent), rebounds (7.2 per game), assists (2.8 per game), steals (54) and blocked shots (21).

Leading 3-point shooter (43.3 percent) Andrew Brown, who hit his stride at the end of the regular season following what was feared to be a season-ending injury, and sophomore Jordan Lyons, who joined the starting lineup down the stretch, return. Brown and Lyons averaged 8.6 and 8.3 points per game, respectively. Lyons, who earned a spot on the All-SoCon Tournament team after 15- and 17-point showings in Asheville, figures to likely make the biggest jump in scoring next season.

It will also be interesting to see the improvement of younger players such as sophomore Jalen Williams, and freshmen Alex Hunter and Clay Mounce. Williams was often a solid backup for Rafferty, highlighted by a showing against South Carolina State in which he had 14 points, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks in 19 minutes off the bench. Hunter displayed the protection of the ball that Furman counts on with a 37-14 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Mounce shot 57 percent from the floor - thanks in part to several highlight-reel dunks.

"I'm really excited because we have great people in the program, but it's going to be a different team in a lot of ways," Richey said. "It's going to be a team that's longer and we're going to be able to do some different things defensively. Who knows who's going to start, but I think it's safe to say we're going to have a lot of guys that will be playing.
"We've got a lot of guys that are ready, with a great spring and summer, to really take that next step."

There will also be the four incoming freshman, guards Mike Bothwell, Jaylon Pugh, Andrew Taylor and forward Jalen Slawson, who each signed back in November. All of them have helped lead their teams to their respective high school playoffs.

"Bothwell's deep into the Ohio playoffs and I'm headed up to see him tonight. Taylor's playing in Rupp (Arena) tomorrow. They (Kentucky) still just have one classification and the top 16 teams all go to Rupp," Richey said Tuesday. "Pugh's team made it to the (Georgia) Elite 8 and Slawson's made it to the (SCISA) semifinals. We've got some guys coming in that understand winning."

There will be a lot more to replace than numbers when it comes to this year's senior class. Lyons, who's displayed a fearless, confident playing style, is looking forward to the challenge of taking on more of a leadership role next season.

"These four have done a great job of setting the standard and the expectations for us," Lyons said in the press conference following the Paladins' SoCon semifinal loss. "I'm excited to take on a role where I can fill those shoes and be there for the underclassmen. I promised the seniors that I'm going to do everything I can to keep the culture where it's at."

While the pain of his college career being over was evident, Fowler sat stoically alongside Lyons and Richey at that press conference. Without being questioned by the media, Fowler added his own thoughts to Lyons' comments.

"I don't think he's stepping into a leadership role. He's already been a leader on this team," Fowler said. "Ever since Jordan first got here I thought he was a leader, and he's just grown tremendously in that these past two years."

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