|With the non-conference schedule over, Furman turns its focus to SoCon
play starting with a challenge at ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Wins at Loyola and Villanova thrust Furman into the national spotlight and into the college basketball polls for the first time ever this season. The Paladins (12-1) had the longest winning streak in the country - and its eight-game road winning streak - snapped last Friday when they suffered their first loss at LSU, 75-57. While the much bigger Tigers had plenty to do with it, it was probably the poorest performance this season for Furman (12-1, 1-0) and it came six days after probably its finest performance in a 93-50 rout of UNCW.
Furman coach Bob Richey tried to keep things in perspective for his team following the loss in Baton Rouge.
"We got to Christmas at 12-1 and had done things for the first time around here. It was one of those moments where yeah, we didn't have our best night but let's not lose appreciation for everything this group has done," Richey said. "Let's make sure we push our focus on what's still left to do.
"I told them (after the LSU game), 'if we're going to compete championship, we've got to make sure we turn our attention to this quickly.' "
There wasn't much of a lenghty Christmas break, but Richey said it was a valuable time for the team to disconnect from what has been a bustling non-conference season filled with plenty of dramatic moments and happy distractions.
"We told them to come back hungry to get better and I think they've done that," Richey said. "We've had a good three days of prep. The spirit and energy has been really good and guys are flying around like we're used to.
"We've taken some things that we know we didn't do well in the LSU game and tried to improve those this week."
While some of the luster may have worn off of Saturday's matchup with Furman no longer being unbeaten or nationally ranked, this will likely prove to be a huge game in the SoCon race. Last season, ETSU pulled out a 62-61 win at Furman but the Paladins avenged that loss and ruined ETSU's Senior Day with a 79-76 win in the regular season finale. A few days later, ETSU ended the careers of Furman's legendary senior class that spearheaded the program's turnaround with a 63-52 win in the SoCon Tournament semifinals.
The big difference in the LSU game was Furman having no answers inside, where the Tigers had a 50-22 advantage on points in the paint and a 40-22 rebounding edge. While the Paladins shouldn't face any team with the size of LSU the rest of the way, ETSU (10-4, 0-1) isn't exactly short.
The Bucs' lineup includes 7-foot center Lucas N'Guessan, who's started the last two games after unexpectedly being ruled eligible to play this season by the NCAA. After transferring from Oklahoma State, where he made 17 starts and played in 54 games the last two seasons, N'Guessan was looking to have to sit out this season as the majority of Division I transfers must do. ETSU petitioned the NCAA and N'Guessan was ruled eligible two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, ETSU's 6-7 forward Jeromy Rodriguez is the fourth-leading rebounder in the nation averaging 11.7 per game. The Bucs are coming off two blowout wins over Wyoming and Norfolk State to win the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso, Texas. In the Wyoming game, ETSU took a 43-11 lead into halftime after holding the Cowboys to 1-of-26 shooting (3.8 percent) in the first half. All four of the Bucs losses have come on the road - at Georgia State, Creighton, Illinois and Wofford.
"We know it's going to be a hard-fought game and they're really good. They've got the size and physicality to really try to hit us in some weak spots. We've got to be ready to play with as much energy as we can," Richey said. "We've got to get back to the ball movement we're used to and be physical on both backboards.
"There's a lot that we took out of that (LSU) game and a lot we got to learn and grow from. I think this group is ready to do that."
After Saturday's trip to Johnson City, Furman comes home to host Mercer on Thursday and The Citadel next Saturday.