Friday, February 22, 2019

Saturday hoops showdown could be historic

When Furman and Wofford clash Saturday at Timmons Arena, it could be one of
the biggest games in Southern Conference history. Photo courtesy of Furman
During the Furman men's basketball team rise from the bottom towards the top of the Southern Conference over the past few seasons, quite a few of its games against Wofford have been classics. This includes the first meeting this season, when the Terriers ended the game with a 7-0 run over the final 55 seconds to capture a 59-54 win in Spartanburg.

Both teams had a full week to prepare for that intense barn burner. When the teams face off in Saturday's rematch at Timmons Arena at 4 p.m., that will once again be the case. While the rest of the league was in game action Thursday, the Paladins (22-5, 11-4) and Terriers (23-4, 15-0) were preparing for what could prove to be one of the most historic SoCon basketball games ever.

Even with Wofford having already wrapped up the SoCon's regular season title and No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament, there's so much still on the line Saturday:

  • It's the last home game for Furman's seniors, including the winningest players in school history - Andrew Brown and Matt Rafferty.
  • Furman is going for its seventh consecutive win and trying to break the record for most regular season wins in school history.
  • Wofford, which is knocking on the door of the AP and Coaches' Top 25 polls, is trying to extend its school-record winning streak to 15 games.
  • It's the latest installment of what's become the best rivalry in the SoCon over the last four-and-a-half seasons. Ever since a last-place Furman team - playing without star Stephen Croone - lost 62-60 to a first-place Wofford team in the 2014-15 regular season finale, eight of the nine meetings have been decided by single digits. The only one that wasn't was last year's game in Greenville, which Furman won 76-52.
  • A Furman win Saturday could prove to be crucial in SoCon Tournament seeding tie-breaker scenarios with ETSU and UNCG, both of whom were swept by Wofford.
  • A Wofford win would tie the school record for most SoCon wins in a season set in 2014-15. It would also greatly increase the chances of the Terriers joining Davidson as the only SoCon members to ever go at least 18-0 in league play. The Wildcats went 20-0 in 2007-08.
  • While either player would surely trade any personal glory for a win Saturday, it will also be the last chance for SoCon Player of the Year voters to see Rafferty and Wofford legend Fletcher Magee on the court at the same time.
And then there's one factor nobody could have predicted being discussed. It's an impact from this game that might not be felt until 22 days later. That will be selection Sunday. When the NCAA Tournament field is revealed that evening, it could include two SoCon teams for the very first time.

This season, the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings are - supposedly - being used to select and seed teams for the NCAA Tournament's field of 68. In the rankings through Thursday's games, Wofford is ranked 24th while Furman is 45th. For what it's worth, the Paladins were No. 42 two days earlier. UNCG and ETSU are No. 60 and 68, respectively. Both the Spartans (23-5, 12-3) and Buccaneers (22-7, 12-4) won Thursday, making the SoCon the only conference with four 22-win teams. In fact, no other conference has more than two.

Many national pundits are taking notice of the SoCon. On last Saturday's edition of ESPN's Gameday, analyst Jay Bilas predicted that if Wofford runs the table in league play, the Terriers would make the NCAAs no matter what happens in Asheville.

Among the major "bracketology" predictions, Bleacher Report's is showing mid-majors quite a bit of respect. BR's Kerry Miller on Monday projected Wofford as a No. 7 seed facing Syracuse, and Furman as a No. 11 seed facing Maryland. As of Friday, ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi has Wofford as a No. 9 seed facing Baylor in Columbia, but doesn't list Furman among the first eight teams out.

After listing Furman as one of the "first four teams out" earlier this week, CBS Sports' Jerry Palm on Friday projected Furman as one of the "last four teams in." Palm has Furman as a No. 12 seed in one of the "play-in" games against Utah State. He has Wofford as a No. 9 seed facing Mississippi. As of Monday, Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller has Wofford as a No. 8 seed and Furman among the "first eight teams out." Bracket Matrix, which gives an average positioning based on all the published brackets, has Wofford as a No. 9 seed and Furman as the fifth team out of the tournament.

Wofford claiming an at-large bid certainly seems like the most plausible way for two SoCon teams to make the field. However, given Furman's current ranking a win by the Paladins on Saturday should certainly boost them inside the NET's top 40. If Furman could win out from there before falling in the SoCon Tournament finals, the Paladins could be poised for an at-large bid.

But, there's a big "but." Saturday isn't the regular season finale. Furman and Wofford each close out the with road trips to Samford and Chattanooga next week and neither should be a cakewalk for either team. Any loss there likely ends any talk of the SoCon being a two-bid league.

With so much on the line, the emotions of Senior Day and playing in front of packed house of fans that sold this game out weeks ago, the Paladins have tried to to avoid getting caught up in the hype.

"The students around campus will be more hyped for this game than any other because it's Wofford. But we've got to focus on how we can get better early on this week, then focus on Wofford," Rafferty said following last Saturday's win over VMI.

While his team has a lot of young parts that have been vital to its success, Furman coach Bob Richey believes they won't get lost in the bright lights of it all. This is in part thanks to the national attention the Paladins thrust themselves into early on this season.

"We've got to be smart about how we manage this week," Richey said last Saturday. "We've dealt with a lot of noise this year. I don't expect the noise of this game to take away our focus of doing what we have to do.
"It's a really, really good team (Wofford). ... It's going to be a great challenge, there's no doubt about it. It's going to be a great Saturday afternoon for college basketball and it just shows how good this league is."

Kansas (47) and Furman (59) are the only teams to hold Wofford to less than 64 points this season.  The Paladins enter Saturday's game ranked No. 1 in the SoCon in scoring defense (65.3 points allowed per game), three-point field goal defense (31.6 percent), blocked shots (4.3 per game) and steals (9.1 per game), and rank second in field goal defense (41.5 percent). Furman's defensive intensity and focus have been especially evident during the current winning streak.

"They're a good team obviously, but we've played well on our home court and gotten even better on defense since the last time we saw them last," Rafferty said. "It's Senior Night and a lot of family will be there. It should be a good one and we're all excited for it."

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