Monday, November 6, 2023

After historic season, Paladins hungry for more

Furman coach Bob Richey
Photo courtesy of Furman

When a program achieves something that it's chased for 43 years - and then takes it one step further with an accomplishment 49 years in the making, how exactly do you respond the next season? For Furman men's basketball coach Bob Richey, it might be as simple as a trip to Home Depot. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

"If you live in a nice house, I don't think you say, 'hey, let's just keep it as is.' You try to go update it, add on to it and keep getting resources for it," Richey said. "I think that's the fun of what we do. You look at the progression of your program. You go from nothing to a has-been to a contender to a champion. Then you have to figure out how to sustain this and be relevant at the championship level."

The first step in figuring that out comes Monday night when the Paladins open the 2023-24 season by hosting North Greenville at 7 p.m. One more celebration of last year's historic run to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament well precede the game.

Fans are encouraged to arrive early as Furman displays its new championship banners and has a ring ceremony for players at 6:45 p.m. Furman's school-record 28 wins last season included its first Southern Conference championship since 1980 and first NCAA Tournament victory since 1974.

After upsetting fourth-seeded Virginia in last year's NCAA Tournament, Furman led San Diego State 16-12 nine minutes into round two. The long and strong Aztecs came back in a big way though, knocking off the Paladins 75-52. The fact that the Aztecs reached the national championship game hasn't been any kind of silver lining for Furman's most lopsided loss of last season for senior Marcus Foster.

"I was still hungry for more after we did all that. It just kind of sparked something in me," Foster said. "I'm still kind of upset that we lost to San Diego State like that. Seeing us get that far I'm just like, 'why can't we get to the Sweet 16?' I just want to do it again."

Junior point guard J.P. Pegues is looking to build off a great regular season in which he brilliantly filled the shoes of the departed Alex Hunter. In the postseason, Pegues reached another gear starting with a phenomenal weekend in Asheville in which he earned the SoCon Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. Pegues then permanently etched his name in the minds of all Furman fans with the shot heard 'round Greenville, his game-winning 3-pointer against Virginia.

"Coach Richey does a great job of not allowing us to get complacent. Yes, we completed - and exceeded - all of our goals last year, but there's always room to grow," Pegues said. "We have to do everything we did last year and more if we want to complete that goal again."

Of the nine leading scorers last season, the only two not returning are Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson. Bothwell is now playing professionally overseas, while Slawson is playing for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. Losing the two winningest players in school history will undoubtedly be felt, probably in some different ways.

However, this narrative that Furman can't be as good because "they're losing a Matt Rafferty or a Jordan Lyons" seems to be a thing of the past. At least that's the case based on the media and coaches' preseason polls, which each predict Furman to win the SoCon title again.

"Obviously, there's a ton of talk about what we're losing. Mike and Slaw are like sons to me ... but they're not our first ever all-conference players. We've had 15 all-conference players in our six years, which I think ranks in the top 10 in the country," Richey said. "Those happen be be two of them and they were products of a process. That's the thing for us. We want to continue to produce products of process.

"We will obviously miss those two, but I think there's a bigger story here in today's game. In a league that lost 53 transfer outs, we retain the other seven that played (last season). I think that's a huge story in of itself. That depth is going to be a key to this team."

In addition to Foster and Pegues, the other five returning leading scorers are Garrett Hien, Tyrese Hughey, Ben VanderWal, Carter Whitt and Alex Williams. New faces likely to contribute this year include junior guard PJay Smith, a transfer from Div. II Lee University, true freshman forward Cooper Bowser and redshirt freshman Davis Molnar.

"All seven made some jumps this offseason and to be able to add PJay as a D2 transfer, he just fits perfectly into our culture," Richey said. "We got really fortunate landing 6-foot-11 freshman Cooper Bowser. He's going to give us a very unique piece.

"This is the hardest we've had a team work in our time here. I think that's natural. ... You go to the tournament. You win a game at the tournament. You have the first player drafted since '84. I think there's a lot of internal motivation for those returning."

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