Furman may start to feel like it was in San Antonio last March.
The Paladins play half of last year’s Final Four within the season’s first two weeks, starting with a trip to Loyola Chicago on Friday night. It’ll no doubt be a test for the Paladins, as the Ramblers are again one of the top teams in mid-major basketball, with an inside-outside game that could rival anyone in college basketball.
But it’s also a sneaky test for the suddenly-nationally-relevant Ramblers as well.
Furman is coming off back-to-back 23-win seasons, and likely offer the Ramblers a tougher test than what they got in their opener. Both the Paladins and Ramblers got wins on opening night, only Loyola’s victory came over another Division I foe, as it downed the Kangaroos 76-45, while the Paladins downed Division II Bob Jones University 102-48. Loyola enters the contest having won eight-straight games at Gentile Arena, and won a school-record 14 games on its home court last season.
Furman coach Bob Richey was clear about the challenge in front of his team.
“We will be dealing with a team that’s very well-coached and very unselfish. They’ve got an elite point guard, an elite (No.) five man and really good pieces around them,” he said. “They didn’t just accidentally fall into the Final Four. It’s going to be tough, but this group’s up for the challenge.”
In the backcourt, the Ramblers rely on the veteran leadership of senior point guard Clayton Custer (9 points, 3 assists, 3 steals vs. UMKC), who was a big reason the Ramblers were able to make the run to the Final Four last year. Custer was the first-ever Rambler to claim the Larry Bird Award last season, which is given to the top player in the Missouri Valley Conference each season.
Custer sets to tone on both ends of the floor for the Ramblers. as the redshirt senior averaged 13.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season, starting all 33 games en route to Loyola’s first Final Four appearance since 1963.
Custer will team with senior wing guard Marques Townes (13 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds vs. UMKC) and talented sophomore guard Lucas Williamson (5 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block vs UMKC). Williamson is coming off a season which saw him honored as a part of the MVC All-Freshman Team and All-MVC bench team. The trio of guards will present one of Furman’s biggest challenges of the non-conference slate, due in large part to the experience of both Townes and Custer.
Freshman guard Cooper Kaifes, had quite the college debut, leading three Ramblers in double figures off the bench in the season opener vs. UMKC, with 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, including going 5-for-7 from three-point range. He also added a pair of boards to his overall stat line.
Center Cameron Krutwig (10 rebounds, 6 rebounds) will be a challenge as well. The sophomore is another savvy player, who uses his body well, knows how to draw fouls and get to the line as well as being a very skilled passer, and possesses a variety of different low post moves.
Furman counters with three new starters, but still has three players that have been part of the 46 wins the previous two seasons, with senior guard Andrew Brown (6 points, 3 rebounds vs. Bob Jones) and junior guard Jordan Lyons (career-high 23 points vs. Bob Jones) both back in the mix, while senior forward Matt Rafferty (career-high 24 points vs. Bob Jones) was a preseason First-Team All-SoCon selection. For Rafferty, who hails from the suburbs of Chicago, it will be a homecoming.
In addition to his career-high 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field, Rafferty added eight boards, five assists, a block and a steal. It was just the kind of start to the season you’d expect for a player of his caliber, and one now expected to carry much of the scoring load for the Paladins this season.
The Paladins will need a big season from this trio after having lost 42 points per game to graduation, including the team’s top defender, in Daniel Fowler, and 2017 SoCon Player of the Year and last season’s leading scorer, Devin Sibley, to graduation. Lyons started the final eight games last season for the Paladins, so he comes into the season with some experience.
Lyons, a prolific scorer and three-point shooter, opened the season with a career-high 23 points, with 21 of those points on seven triples. He was part of a backcourt, which included starters Alex Hunter (7 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal vs. Bob Jones) and Brown, who committed a school-record low three turnovers in the first game of the season as a collective backcourt in somewhat of a new era for Furman basketball.
One of the top newcomers for the Paladins and a player worth keeping an eye on this season is guard Mike Bothwell (11 points, 1 assist, 2 steal vs Bob Jones). He has shown an unflappable demeanor uncanny for a freshman guard in the season opener as well as the two scrimmages prior to the season opener.
“You know as we always talk about we always want good people in our program and when we started recruiting Mike that was the first thing you heard about him,” Richey said. “What an unbelievable individual he is and what we started noticing about him once we started to getting to know him is how magnetic his personality was and just how poised he is, and he reminded us a lot of Daniel Fowler when we recruited Daniel. He kind of plays with that same type presence and things don’t seem to phase him and he doesn’t really get bothered and he’s a joy to be around.”
Can the Paladins keep this game close? The simple answer is yes. The Paladins have depth and defend well enough to stick around awhile. Loyola’s experience and talent will be the ultimate difference in this contest, but expect the Paladins to at least make things interesting for far later into the game than most of the experts think.