-It's a story that Niko Medved has lived once before in his coaching career, however, the 2014-15 season marked the second he had lived as a head coach.
Furman basketball has been in the doldrums of Division I college basketball since the late 1980s and and early 90s under the direction of Butch Estes. The Paladins have seen their program struggle for the better part of the past 23 years--the last Southern Conference title for the Furman basketball program.
But for Medved, who will be heading into his third season as the head coach in 2015-16, Furman is a place he has been before and one in which he understands the dynamics, having to manage the academic standard of the curriculum, while finding the best talent available to the mid-major program.
Medved spent six years under former Paladin boss Larry Davis, who made a name for himself last season after leading Cincinnati to the NCAA Tournament last season after Mick Cronin had a blood clot discovered and was forced to sit out the entire season, and he has proven his worth as a recruiter and an offensive mastermind.
During his first stint at Furman, Medved procured Minnesota Mr. Basketball Eric Webb, who chose Furman over Minnesota and several other bigger programs to play for Davis and the Paladins.
The 2003 signing class was one of the best recruiting in the recent history of Furman basketball. The recruiting class included the likes of Moussa Diagne, Robby Bostain, Malaye Ndoye, Quan Prowell, Eric Webb. The addition of these five talents helped the Paladins helped Furman take a step towards joining the talent level of some of the bigger teams in the SoCon, like East Tennessee State and Chattanooga. The 2004 recruiting class, which included future 1,000-point scorers Bostain, Webb and Diagne, would finish as the highest scoring freshman class in Division I college basketball.
The Paladins couldn't meet the lofty standards despite the talents of those four players mentioned above. Then, Davis would leave to take a top assistant job at Cincinnati under the direction of Cronin. Perhaps Furman's loss in the 2006 Southern Conference Tournament to one of the conference's worst teams--The Citadel--was the writing on the wall for Davis.
But the sudden departure of Davis left Medved in charge under the interim tag. Medved was hot on the trail of two prospects from his home state of Minnesota, and with the two players all set to continue their careers at Furman when Davis left for Cincinnati, and then Medved was not hired for the job and in stepped Jeff Jackson.
The dominoes saw Medved's two prospects to find their way to another Southern Conference school just up the road. One immediately and the other via the transfer route.
Just three years later, the two would be raising the first Southern Conference Tournament title trophy at Wofford. Their names, of course, were Noah Dahlman and Cameron Rundles. Dahlman was the 2009 Southern Conference Player of the Year, while Rundles arrived at Wofford after transferring in after two years at Montana.
Had Medved stayed and those two become Paladins, who knows what might have happened. Wofford of course went on to claim another Southern Conference crown in 2010 and have now won four titles in six years.
In some small way, Furman's decision not to hire Medved as a young, enterprising and hard-working head coach in 2006 had a little to do with Wofford winning their first two titles, and that potentially led to the current success.
Wofford head coach Mike Young, Medved's close friend, has a lot to more to do with Wofford's success over the past six years.
A strange twist would see Medved find his way west to a Colorado State program that was in shambles. But Medved worked his way up the assistant ranks--first under Tim Miles and then after Miles left for Nebraska--under Larry Eustachy.
Eustachy and Miles, for those that know college basketball, are two of the best coaching minds in the business. Learning under those two helped Medved become the type coach that has would will help him become a hot commodity in college basketball circles over the next few years. While he is gaining in knowledge as a head coach while he moves along, he has always known how to recruit.
The thing that is most striking about the 43-year old coach from St. Paul, Minnesota is that he is likable and not only that, he is always looking to learn and he engages his players and the fan base. He is systematically transforming Furman basketball at all levels.
In his first two seasons as an assistant coach at Colorado State, which were the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, were two trying campaigns that saw the Rams go a combined 16-47.
It was a program that was seemingly going nowhere, however, the next two seasons, the Rams' fortunes began to change, as Colorado State made an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational, or CBI, and then a year later, the National Invitational Tournament or NIT.
The Rams more than doubled the win total from Medved's initial two campaigns as an assistant, posting a 35-29 mark over the next two campaigns.
By the time Medved's fifth season rolled around, which saw him in charge of the team's motion offense, the Rams rolled to their first 20-win season since 1998 and made their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. Following that 20-12 season, the Rams returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13, posting a remarkable 26-9 campaign. Medved was also instrumental in helping the program attain an Associated Press Top 25 ranking for the first time in nearly half a century
The Number Seven:
As fate would have it, Medved would find his way back to Furman in April of 2013. That's because Jeff Jackson's tenure was coming to an end after Furman endured one of its worst seasons in school history, finishing with a mere seven wins.
The same number of wins in which the Rams accumulated in 2005-06 prior to Medved's arrival in Fort Collins. It had also been seven years since Medved left Furman, and it would seven until he would return.
Medved's return came in 2013, and the 2013-14 season would be a lean one to say the least, as the Paladins struggled to gain confidence, injuries and transitioning to a new motion offense from a variation of the Princeton offense employed by Jackson.
The bit of good news was that Furman had a guard named Stephen Croone, and the sophomore guard was a talent that Medved knew he could build an immediate future around.
Though the Paladins won only nine games, Croone would rank second in the Southern Conference in scoring, at 19.1 PPG, and he really became the first player to warm to Medved's system.
The recruitment of Kris Acox in 2013 proved to be a diamond in the rough and was the final one brought in by Jeff Jackson, as the Reykajivk Iceland product broke his foot early in the 2013-14 season, but returned to play a big role in Furman's stretch run this past season only to fracture his foot once again early on in the title game game against Wofford.
Players Medved inherited like guard Larry Wideman and forward Kendrec Ferrara brought their respective games to a higher level, especially on the defensive end.
Laying The Foundation
The Paladins would bow out in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament, not making much of a ruckus. However, the pieces were beginning to take shape. The signing of Daniel Fowler, Devin Sibley, John Davis III and Geoff Beans were about to take Furman to the type level it was in 2004, when the Paladins brought in the star-studded group mentioned above.
But this class had a lot to do with talented assistant Bob Richey, who was retained from Jackson's staff, and along with Jay McAuley, could be considered one of the top assistants in the SoCon.
Richey has strong roots and a loose tie to Furman, having spent five seasons under former Furman assistant Barclay Radebaugh at Charleston Southern. Radebaugh served as a top assistant, along with Greg Nighbert, on Furman's staff headed up by Butch Estes in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
McAuley came to Furman from Gardner-Webb, where he served the Bulldogs' staff from 2011-13. Prior to that, he was instrumental in helping Wofford to its first of two Southern Conference titles in 2009 and ‘10.
Richey's signing of
The 2014-15 season featured the kind of growing pains one might expect of so many young players, but one thing was evident from the outset that hadn't been evident since Medved's first stint under Davis, and that was Furman had big-time talent. They had scoring and outside shooting, and it was a team that was growing as the season went along.
Unfortunately, the regular-season was more of the tough type of growth, which featured a mixture of competitive losses, which accounted for the majority, and also the blowout losses, with some ugly losses in February on the SoCon road.
The non-conference schedule was stacked full of games which challenged the Paladins, especially on the road at places like Florida Gulf-Coast, Gardner-Webb, Minnesota, TCU and Duke.
By the time the Paladins made it to the Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins went into the postseason having won one game less than they had a year earlier, as the Paladins just eight wins. But the Paladins had gained confidence through the process of the season, and after a late-season, 84-49 loss at UNC Greensboro, challenged themselves to raise their level in the remaining regular-season games against Western Carolina and Wofford.
Medved's challenge was answered as Furman nearly knocked the four seeds in the SoCon down the stretch, starting with a 53-49 win over Western Carolina in the second-to-last game of the season. The Paladins won four of their final six games, defeating No. 2, 3, 4 in the league standings in the process. The lone two losses in that stretch were to eventual SoCon champions Wofford, which came by a combined five points.
The time is now for Medved and the Paladins. Medved followed up a class that included three Freshman All-SoCon team honorees by bringing in three more players with at least that type of potential, with Jalen Williams (Greenville, S.C/Wade Hampton HS) and Andrew Brown (Travelers Rest HS/Greenville SC).
The aforementioned signings are significant because under past head coaches, there hasn't been an effort to sign as many kids from the local area schools from the Upstate of SC, which has always produced outstanding talent, which equates at the next level.
Wofford's Mike Young made good use of that talent reservoir over the years, with Junior Salters (Broome HS/Spartanburg, S.C.) being one of the more notable signees of the recent past, and Salters would end his career as one of the top three-point marksmen in school history. Another signee that is making his name known currently for the Terriers, who also hails from the Upstate of SC is Spencer Collins (Easley HS/Easley, S.C.)
But anyone who is familiar with basketball in the Upstate of SC knows the Wade Hampton basketball program, and head coach Darryl Nance. Nance has churned out Division I talent and state championships during his leadership as both the program's Director of Athletics and head basketball coach.
In his final season, he led the Generals to an undefeated regular-season, but fell to Hillcrest in the Upper State title before a packed house at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in double overtime.
Nance has moved on from Wade Hampton to take a larger role as Director of Athletics for the South Carolina High School Association, but in his last season, he helped develop Jalen Williams for Medved and that Paladins. The 6-9 post player is one that Medved has called polished on more than one occassion, which gives him the opportunity to play right away.
With the skills possessed by Williams in terms of his footwork and strength, you can bet that Medved will seek out Greenville's own for more often than in season's past.
Also coming into the fold are Isaiah Watkins, who transferred in from Duquesne and the former three-star recruit sat out last season, and will be eligible in 2015-16. Chicago product and 6-8 forward Matt Rafferty is a great inside-out threat, and jet-quick, 5-10 quard Jonathan Jean from Tampa, FL, is another player that could see some time this season.
It could be argued that Medved has maybe the best eye for talent as a recruiter as any coach in mid-major college basketball. In many ways, it's akin to how Shaka Smart emerged from virtually being an unknown to now being thought of as one of the top coaches in college basketball.
Now, Medved certainly still has much to prove to reach that level, but if the SoCon has proven anything over the past few years, it has some of the most highly thought of young coaches in the nation, and certainly Medved is in that class. It will be an interesting season for sure in Greenville, and potentially, one that serves as one that changes the fortunes of a once-proud program that has been mired in the doldroms of the SoCon's lower class for far too long.