|Jalen Slawson is the first Furman player ever to earn Southern|
Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - March Madness is finally here and as teams shoot their shot for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, there will likely hear talk about young teams and veteran teams over the next couple of weeks. As the second-seeded Furman men get set to face seventh-seeded Mercer in the Southern Conference Tournament quarterfinals Saturday at 6 p.m., coach Bob Richey believes he's fortunate to have a combination of both.
It would be difficult to find a starting backcourt with more experience than the Paladins' duo of Alex Hunter and Conley Garrison. Hunter, a fifth-year senior, was snubbed from the All-SoCon teams despite ranking third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio and sixth in three-pointers made. Hunter is Furman's all-time leader in three-pointers (310) and third on the school's assist ledger with 451. Garrison, a graduate transfer, surpassed the 2,000-point mark in his collegiate career and has fit like a glove for the Paladins since arriving this season from Division II Drury University. He ranks second in the SoCon in three-point shooting (43.6 percent).
Furman has a pair of All-SoCon first team members in seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, who both appear to be coming back next season. In the regular season, Bothwell averaged 15.5 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game, while Slawson slashed 14.5/7.6/3.9. Sophomore Marcus Foster battled through injuries to play limited minutes last season before entering the starting lineup in late November this season. He earned that role through his defense, but has become more of an offensive weapon the last few weeks. All five starters averaged double figures in scoring in SoCon play.
"We've always presented as an old team, but this year six through ten are freshmen or COVID freshmen. I think we have a good mix and that's what I like because that's a key to building a program," Richey said during the Paladins' shootaround at the Harrah's Cherokee Center late Friday night. "You want to be old enough, but you want to have some in the middle and some you're developing. ... We need our bench to be ready to roll this weekend because when we've played at our best this year, they've been huge."
Furman fans need no reminder of what Richey's team is chasing this weekend. It's been 42 years after all. After frustrating opening-round exits each of the last two seasons, Richey has tried to change up routines this season and this week.
In hopes of keeping starters fresher, Richey committed to using the bench more after the Paladins' 71-69 loss at Chattanooga on Jan. 15. The team responded with its best stretch of basketball all year, winning five consecutive games in dominant fashion. The bench contributions have shown in the fact that Furman has had 10 different players score in double figures in a game this season.
After losing three straight following the winning streak, Furman (20-11) closed out the season winning three out of four. In the final week, the Paladins bounced back from an ugly loss at Samford in which the Bulldogs shot 60 percent from the floor by rolling over The Citadel, 94-59, in Charleston last Saturday.
"It was good just to have a nice rhythm like that. Just to get back out there defensively with a high deflection game," Richey said. "Get the game in transition, move the ball and make shots. Just the things we're doing when we're playing well. To have that happen right before the tournament - even with a week in between - you hope that carries over."
In preparing for the tournament this week, Furman arrived in Asheville earlier than usual. They did so to cheer on their classmates as they've attended each of the Furman women's first two games, both wins which put the Paladins in the women's championship game Sunday at noon. That's not the only thing Richey changed.
"I talked to some other coaches about tournament preparation and spent part of my summer thinking about how to try something a little bit different. We had Sunday and Monday off, which we haven't done before. We revved it up a little bit on Tuesday, went hard Wednesday and Thursday and choked it down today," Richey said. "I left it up to the team if they wanted to come on Thursday or Friday, and they all wanted to come on Thursday (for the women's opening game).
"We have a good relationship with our women's team. (Coach) Jackie (Carson) and I are good friends. We moved our practice to 11 o'clock this morning to be able to come over here and see them beat Wofford. I've got a lot of respect for them. I've really enjoy watching them play and I'm pulling like heck for them to get this thing done on Sunday."
In addition to being named a consensus All-SoCon first team player by the league's coaches and media, Slawson was also named the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year. His 7.6 rebounding average ranks fourth in the SoCon, while the 6-foot-7 power forward leads the league in steals (1.8 per game) and is third in blocked shots (1.7 per game). Many of those steals and blocks have been dynamic plays that have led to dynamic scoring opportunities on the other end for Furman.
"In a league with this much depth, it's really good to have two guys on the first team. Jalen is the first Furman player to ever win defensive player of the year," Richey said. "His growth has been incredible. I think he's going to be a key this weekend. His demeanor, presence and poise all are critical components because our team feeds off his energy.
"There's a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world right now. We get to come out here and dribble a ball and throw it in the net. We're going to try to embrace that and have as much fun with it as we can and not make this a pressure packed situation. But also with the understanding that pressure is just an opportunity to excel."