Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Hoo boy! Furman-Virginia to open NCAA tourney

Furman celebrates after its name is revealed during an NCAA Tournament
Selection Show watch party at Timmons Arena Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman men's basketball program had to wait 43 years to hear its name called on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. It didn't have to wait very long on Sunday though. The show began by revealing Alabama as the top overall seed for the tournament, followed by the rest of the matchups in the South Regional.

When Virginia's name popped up as the No. 4 seed in the South, there was a real sense of nervous anticipation about who might be next amongst the packed house watching on a big screen at Furman's Timmons Arena. When show host Greg Gumbel said "they (Virginia) will meet the Paladins of Furman University" and 13th-seed Furman appeared on the screen, the crowd of team members, coaches, cheerleaders, students and fans erupted.

"That was a lot of fun, just to see the arena full and to continue to see the excitement of our fan base. It's something that we've waited for a very long time to be part of. Everybody kept asking me through the week, 'does it feel real?' I think today made it real," Richey said in a press conference following the watch party. "We're going, and we know where we're going and we know who we're playing. I couldn't be more happy for our players, our former players and our fans to be able to experience it."

About an hour after the bracket was revealed, the Paladins found out they wouldn't have long to wait to get started in the tournament either. Furman and Virginia will be the second game of the opening round when the teams tip-off at 12:40 p.m. Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando. The game will be televised on truTV.

After finally reaching the mountain top of the Southern Conference with its championship victory over Chattanooga on March 6, it was a week of celebrating and preparing for an unknown opponent capped off by Sunday's raucous event.

Then it became time preparing for a Virginia program that year in and year out has one of the toughest defenses in the country. The Cavaliers, who rank sixth in the country in scoring defense allowing 60.2 points per game, will be tested by a Furman offense that's eighth in the country in scoring (82.1 points per game) and assists (17.1 per game).

It will be a matchup of excellent coaches. Among the top 20 active Division I basketball coaches in winning percentage (minimum 100 games), this is the only opening round game featuring two. Virginia's Tony Bennett is 10th at 410-157 (.7231), while Richey is 11th at 138-53 (.7225).

"I've watched him for years. His values, the person that he is, being a man of faith and being an unbelievable basketball coach, I've looked up to him in a lot of ways" Richey said. "A lot of our defense we've pulled from a lot of the different things that they do."

Opponents change, but identity doesn't

Virginia (25-7) doesn't have a big-time standout scoring-wise. Armaan Franklin leads a balanced group averaging 12.5 points per game. Jayden Gardner averages 12.1 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds per game. Kihei Clark averages 10.9 points and 5.4 assists per game, while Reece Beekman averages 9.4 points and 5.3 assists per game. The Cavaliers aka Wahoos aka 'Hoos have six players with at least 24 steals, led by Beekman's 55.

A fun matchup should come in the backcourt where Mike Bothwell, the fifth-leading scorer in Furman history who averages 18 points per game, and SoCon Tournament Most Outstanding Player J.P. Pegues face Beekman and Clark. ESPN analyst call Virginia's duo "the best defensive guards in the country." While Furman ranks 10th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.53, Virginia is No. 1 at 1.85.

Richey called the NCAA Tournament the biggest spectacle in college athletics, if not athletics in general. Going into the biggest game of their lives, Richey said it's important to not lose sight of who they are.

"What makes Virginia good? They have identity. What makes Furman good? We have identity. We're not going to try to find any tricks this week. We have to go do what we do best. They're going to try to do what they do best," Richey said. "I watched the (ACC) championship (Saturday) night. It was an unbelievable battle between Duke and Virginia. It was a lot of defense out there. Duke won because they really, really guarded.

"What we're going to have to understand is we're going to have to go defend and rebound at the highest level that we have all year. If we do that, get stops and get rebounds, then we're going to get an opportunity to go out and do what we do."

When Richey cut down the net last Monday in Asheville, he held his piece up, turned to the crowd and shouted "believe!" That's the biggest thing for a team trying to be the latest version of Cinderella in the greatest ball of them all. After overcoming the heartbreak of last season's end and the pressure this season brought, "believe" still resonates within the Paladins.

"Every time we step on the court and every time we're connected, we believe that we can beat anybody," Pegues said. "I think we're going to take that same attitude to Orlando."

What Virginia is saying

In addition to being one of the best coaches in the country, Bennett is also one of the most respected and well liked. It's no surprise that he heaped praise on the Paladins during a press conference Monday.

"In watching them, there's a reason why they've been so good for so many years. That program has been established. They play the right way and they're a veteran team," Bennett said. "They can get it down the floor, shoot it well, but also run good stuff and play hard defensively. ... They'll challenge you in a lot of ways."

Bennett said in watching film it was easy to see why Furman's Jalen Slawson earned SoCon Player of the Year honors this season.

"He's a complete offensive player and very competitive. He's got size and length. He can shoot it well, put it on the floor and passes well," Bennett said. "They use him in unique ways in how they stretch the floor. He's almost like a point forward or a point guard-forward type."

So you're telling me there's a chance

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, No. 13 seeds have gone 31-113 (21.5 winning percentage) in the first round. Furman won't have the luxury of sneaking up on an opponent who has never experienced the pain of an NCAA first-round upset loss as Virginia was one of the last No. 4 seeds to fall to a 13-seed. That came in 2021, when the Cavs lost to Ohio, 62-58. That same year, fourth-seeded Purdue also lost to 13th-seeded North Texas in overtime.

Virginia will actually be going for its first NCAA victory since capturing the 2019 national championship. The Cavaliers went 23-7 in the 2019-20 regular season, but COVID cancelled the ACC and NCAA tournaments that season. Last season, Virginia didn't make the field and went on to fall in the NIT quarterfinals.

The Cavs were famously on the wrong end of the biggest upset in NCAA history when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed in the opening round at the 2018 Tournament. Virginia's response by winning the whole thing the following season actually helped inspire Furman, following its heartbreaking end to the 2022 season.

"We've talked a little bit about their journey and the ticket of adversity being able to get you somewhere that you couldn't have gone to without it," Richey said. "As we went on our journey this last year, we drew on that some."

Going to Disney World

Winning your conference tournament six days before Selection Sunday provides plenty of time for fans - and writers - to check bracketology and other tournament projections on a daily basis. For quite a bit of last week, it appeared that Furman might be a No. 14 seed facing Tennessee in Greensboro. That would've ironically been the same opponent in the same building as the Paladins' last tournament game in 1980.

While it would've been the shortest trip for the team and fans, it would've kind of stunk to go play in UNC Greensboro's arena that Furman already plays in every year. Everyone seemed thrilled to get a new experience of playing in the Amway Center, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic. That was even true for Bothwell, a Cleveland Heights, Ohio native, who could've been playing 150 miles from home had the Paladins been ticketed for Columbus.

"When we were talking about it, Orlando kept popping up as a place we really wanted a chance to go to. Going to play in an NBA arena where the Magic play is just another childhood dream fulfilled," Bothwell said. "I'm looking forward to walking around the city, the shootaround, all the pageantry that leads up to the game and then obviously, the game itself.

"We're just going to relish in every moment of stuff that's not guaranteed or promised. It's going to be super fun and I'm just glad I get to do it with all of us together. Our families will be there. Our coaches' families will be there. That's stuff that we will remember forever."

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As always, thank you for reading and supporting the Furman Sports Report. This blog would not have been possible without the financial support of its initial sponsor, Tommy's Country Ham House. Without a sponsor following Tommy's retirement, I now rely on donations to help with the cost of travel to cover the football and basketball teams. If you'd like to make a donation, you can do so at the PayPal link here. Thanks again for your support and consideration!

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