Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Furman, ETSU set for first-place SoCon battle

Furman's Noah Gurley and ETSU's Bo Hodges battle for a loose ball
in the Paladins' 65-56 win in Greenville. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman and East Tennessee State have been tied for first place in the Southern Conference throughout the month of February. That deadlock will come to an end Wednesday night when the teams battle in what's sure to be an electric atmosphere at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tenn. The winner will be all alone in first place with three games to go in the regular season.

If you're reading this, you probably already knew all that. Plenty of folks outside of the SoCon are getting the message too though as this game has caught the eye of college basketball pundits from ESPN, CBS Sports, etc. In ESPN's latest edition of Bracketology published Tuesday by Joe Lunardi, both Furman and ETSU are projected No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, with the Bucs being one of the "last four in."

"This is why we came here. These are the types of games we want to play in. This is when it gets fun," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "There's a couple of different ways to look at this. You can make it bigger than it needs to be in terms of pressure or you can look at it and say 'hey, this is what the program has risen to. It's Feb. 19 and we're playing for sole possession of first place.'
"We know what it's going to be like. It's one of the best environments in the league. It's going to be 6,500 people and it's going to be loud. (ETSU coach) Steve (Forbes) obviously does a great job in how he coaches them. ... Our guys are excited."

It will be a matchup of an ETSU team that hasn't lost this month against a Furman team that hasn't lost in a month. The Bucs (23-4, 12-2) have won five consecutive games since a stunning 71-55 home loss to Mercer on Jan. 29. The Paladins (22-5, 12-2) have seven straight wins since a 66-52 loss at Wofford on Jan. 17. Only the Big 12 (Kansas and Baylor) can boast two other 22-win teams in its conference.

ETSU enters ranked No. 2 in the latest College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 and No. 42 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking. Furman is eighth in the Mid-Major and No. 71 in the NET. In addition to everything else on the line SoCon-wise, Wednesday also provides the Paladins a chance to boost it's NCAA at-large resume. The Bucs' resume is bolstered by an 11-point win at LSU in December. That same month, a series of unfortunate events robbed Furman of a huge boost to its resume in an three-point overtime loss at Auburn.

When the teams met in Greenville on Jan. 4, the Paladins limited ETSU to 5-of-23 shooting from three in a 65-56 win. The Bucs' rebounding machine, Jeromy Rodriguez, has been out lately due to injury. He played that day, but Furman still outrebounded ETSU 41-28. It was just one of two times in SoCon play that the Paladins have won the battle on the boards. The second time came in Saturday's 58-53 win over Chattanooga.

Furman will be trying to sweep the season series from the Bucs for the first time in 33 years. There's been no sweep by either team since ETSU returned to the SoCon five years ago. The Bucs were positioned for one two years ago after a last second one-point win in Greenville early that season, but the Paladins spoiled ETSU's Senior Day with a three-point win in the regular season finale.

So Jordan Lyons, Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter know what it's like to win on the Bucs' home court, not that any previous meetings will mean much when the ball tips off Wednesday.

"I think every game stands on its own two feet," Richey said. "I think the one thing that's unique here is that they're playing a lot different with the absence of Rodriguez. They're playing a lot more with four guards.
"It's the same type of East Tennessee toughness in terms of how they guard you and the pressure they're going to bring. Offensively, they're going to get downhill on you and get out in transition like they always do. In the halfcourt, they're really going to test your drive defense. Rebounding well will be critical for us to do again."

While Wednesday's matchup is huge for all the obvious reasons, the winner won't be able to put things on cruise control the rest of the way. Furman's next two are against the only teams to beat the Paladins the first time through the league. Furman plays Wofford at The Well on Saturday before traveling to UNC Greensboro next Wednesday. ETSU will travel to a Wofford team it only beat 49-48 at home next Wednesday before hosting a potent Western Carolina team in next Saturday's regular season finale.

Still, Wednesday's winner will be in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. That seed may be more coveted than ever this year as there appears to be three distinct groups in the league - a top three (Furman, ETSU, UNCG), a dangerous bunch in the middle (Western Carolina, Wofford, Chattanooga, Mercer) and a bottom three (Samford, VMI, Citadel).

The No. 1 seed would be assured of playing one of the bottom three in the SoCon quarterfinals and - with a win - not playing one of the top three in the semifinals.

While ETSU will no doubt have a rowdy home court advantage, Furman has tried to ensure some purple will mix in the planned "gold out." The school has provided $15 deal for students that covers a ticket, a meal and a bus ride to the game.

"It beats these trips four or five years ago when nobody even knew we were out of town," Richey said. "Progress is always great. We're just always trying to figure out ways to move the program forward.
"We want to continue to help Furman, our city and our league in any way we can. It's nice to see people get excited about what's going on."

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