|Tre Clark has helped lead Furman's defensive surge over the
last month of the regular season. Photo courtesy of Furman
The program has now reached the level where the expectation is to be in contention for the league title every season. Entering this year's SoCon Tournament, that expectation may be as high as it's been in years. The No. 2 seed Paladins (25-6, 15-3) have school records for most wins in a regular season and most SoCon wins in a season. Furman is one victory away from the record for most overall wins in a season, which was set last year.
"I think momentum is huge. Obviously, all teams want to be playing their best ball of the year late and we've won 10 out of 11," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It's been a stretch where we've tried to continue to play at the level we've been playing at all year offensively, and just take another step defensively."
Even though Furman was piling up wins in November and December, defense was a missing element that's proven to be vital for the Paladins the past few seasons. Defense has been a difference maker down the stretch for Furman. The emergence of super sixth man, Tre Clark, and the maturation of younger players such as Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson have keyed that defensive surge.
While there were some elements of the defensive mindset and intensity that Furman coaches want to see earlier in the year, such as the 65-56 home win over SoCon regular season champion ETSU on Jan. 4, it wasn't consistently there. In Richey's mind, a turning point in that consistency began with the Paladins' 79-57 victory over Mercer on Feb. 5.
"They came to Timmons on a six-game winning streak. We knew how well Mercer was playing, we knew how close the game was in Macon and we knew we were going to have to defend," Richey said. "When our guys so how we won that and the margin by which we won against a very good team, I think they said, 'you know what, this is a difference for us.' "
Richey said it's an "easy sell" to get players to buy into being part of a good offense. Buying into defense is a different story. Seeing the fruits of that labor help make it easier though.
"Defense isn't always something people just want to do, but this group has really bought into and really seen the impact it can make," Richey said. "When you get to a tournament setting, that's very important. These games don't always get into the 80s. We've all played each other twice and everybody knows each other's stuff. You've got to sit down and guard."
While a defense that ranks second in scoring (67.3 points allowed per game) and steals (7.8) in SoCon play has been a key, Furman hasn't been lacking in offense. Led by All-SoCon first team member Jordan Lyons (16.4 points per game) and third team members Noah Gurley (14.5) and Clay Mounce (13.2), Furman ranks No. 1 in field goal percentage (47.3) in league play. The Paladins also lead the SoCon in assist-to-turnover ratio primarily thanks to point guard Alex Hunter, who ranks fourth in the country at 3.39.
The Paladins head to Asheville with an 11-1 record over their last 12 games. That's the best finish to a Furman regular season in 67 years. The 1952-53 edition of the Paladins went 20-1 over the last two months of the regular season to finish fifth (?!?) in a 17-team SoCon. That team lost to West Virginia in the opening round of the SoCon Tournament, which saw Wake Forest defeat N.C. State in the finals.
This year's tournament competition may be just as fierce as it was back then during the Eisenhower administration. While ETSU, Furman and UNC Greensboro were clearly the top three, any of the middle foursome of Mercer, Western Carolina, Chattanooga and Wofford are more than capable of making a run to the final. Even No. 9 seed VMI has given the SoCon top three fits this season.
Furman begins play Saturday at 6 p.m. when the Paladins face either No. 7 seed Wofford or No. 10 seed The Citadel. If the Terriers snap their seven-game losing streak and extend the Bulldogs' skid to 19 games, it will set up a rubber game between the Upstate rivals. Furman lost at Wofford, 66-52, on Jan. 17 before beating the Terriers, 67-66, on Bothwell's game-winning shot in the final seconds on Feb. 22 at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Quite simply, there's not going to be an easy path for any team to Monday's final.
"There's going to be nine games and I bet you all nine of them are pretty good. It's going to be a treat for fans to watch," Richey said. "This team knows how good the league is. They know how good the opponents are going to be, but they've got a belief and a determination about them. I think it's going to be fun to see how it all plays out once we get out there."