Furman head coach Bob Richey couldn’t help but glance back towards the crowd when the chants started.
“O-VER-RATED!” screamed nearly 10,000 fans inside Pete Maravich Assembly Center, as time wound down on LSU’s 75-57 victory on Dec. 21. “O-VER-RATED!”
As disappointed as Richey was that his 12-0 Paladins were about to suffer their first defeat of the season, he took a moment to reflect. How exactly had a school from the Southern Conference, which received a $100,000 paycheck to even come play against this SEC foe, gotten to the point of earning overrated chants? His mind flashed to the game-winning dunk against Loyola Chicago, the win on No. 8 Villanova’s home floor, the school’s first ever ranking in the AP Top 25.
But more candidly, he wondered how his team would now respond to finally losing. It was a concern buried deep in the back of his mind since before the season started, one that had grown with each consecutive win.
“These kids had never dealt with the attention they’d gotten, and I think there was a pressure element involved,” Richey says. “My biggest fear was how would we deal with adversity, would we be able to bounce back.”
The seeds of this historic Furman season were planted in March, when Richey faced a difficult decision. Should he pursue a bid in one of college basketball’s pay-for-play postseason tournaments, such as the CBI or CIT? After guiding the Paladins to 23 wins in his first season as a head coach, the then-34-year-old needed just one more victory to set the school record for wins in a season. He opted not to do it. “I could care less about all that,” Richey says. He had greater ambitions for the program.
And he had work to do. Four seniors, including the team’s three leading scorers, were all graduating. When Richey took over as head coach in April 2017, those four had comprised his first “leadership council,” meaning he was now practically starting over from scratch. In mid-March, he held his first meeting with the new group of four.
“I’ll never forget the first one. It was so weird. It was almost like you were in a funeral. No one was talking,” Richey says.
Two were rising seniors, Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown. They were the only returners who played more than 20 minutes per game, and neither was particularly vocal. The other selections, Jordan Lyons and Alex Hunter, were coming off sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively, where they simply followed the example of those above them. It was clear immediately that the first few weeks of the offseason would be the most critical of the entire year.
Richey’s approach to developing leadership is somewhat unorthodox, in that the focus is not often on basketball. The slogan he’s implemented since taking the job has been Further the Man, prioritizing his players as people first. It’s a motto often preached by coaches across the country, but rarely executed diligently.
Players are matched up with individual mentors, business leaders in the local community of Greenville, South Carolina, whom they meet with once a month. Outside speakers are brought in weekly to teach life lessons. Each player is fitted for a tailor-made suit and taught how to tie a tie, stand up straight, look people in the eye and shake their hands. To his new leadership council he assigned books, articles and instructional videos. He held seminars on communication skills, confrontation, being vocal, and dealing with adversity. Though Richey says his goal with the program is to produce employable professionals, he cannot deny the benefits it has had on the court.
“I think as you teach life skills, that if you develop the person the player is really going to develop as a byproduct,” he says. “Like if you teach the principle of work and why it’s important and how that helps you grow, that’s going to force them to take responsibility for themselves and they’re going to drive their development.”
Over the summer leadership took hold, underclassmen showed flashes of talent, and after a competitive showing in a preseason scrimmage with Florida, Richey was quietly confident his team would be better than a preseason ranking of fourth in the SoCon might indicate. But he admits he never could’ve predicted what came next.
In early November sophomore Clay Mounce, who played just over 12 minutes per game last season, threw down a game-winning poster dunk to beat Final Four participant Loyola Chicago. The following week Lyons tied an NCAA record by draining 15 threes en route to a 54-point performance against North Greenville. Two days later the team knocked off Villanova.
By Dec. 3, they were ranked No. 25 in the entire country.
Everything was suddenly magnified. Highlights were shown on SportsCenter. Players were recognized around town. The two rules of thumb that had been preached to Richey since his arrival in Greenville were breaking. Rule one: nobody cares about games in November and December because it’s still football season in the South. Basketball season doesn’t begin until nearby Clemson’s football season is over. And rule two: Furman students are different. They don’t come to basketball games.
For a mid-December game against UNC Wilmington, a near-sellout crowd inside Timmons Arena included over 600 students, almost a quarter of the school’s total enrollment (around 2,800).
“It feels more like now we’re the city’s team,” says Lyons.
Rafferty agrees: “We’re not calling them bandwagon fans; even if they’re hopping on we’re happy to have them.”
The win over UNCW brought the team’s record to a perfect 12-0. But inside the program, Richey could sense the focus slipping. Practices were getting more familiar, almost systematic. Players and coaches alike were fighting the urge to simply go through the motions. After the loss to LSU, Richey was concerned with whether his leadership principles would hold on a team comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
“They were kind of spoiled with the first 12 games,” Rafferty says of the team’s youth. “I think we were a little scared after the LSU game. It’s like, should we really be competing at the highest level?”
A week later, things got worse when East Tennessee State drilled Furman by 23 points. ETSU was able to replicate LSU’s pressure defense, utilizing a similar height and length advantage at every position. Much has been made about the Paladins’ relative size—the tallest player on the roster is Rafferty at 6-foot-8—yet after the game Richey and Rafferty identified the problems having more to do with energy and confidence than scheme.
“I think we’ve got to get back to what fall practices were like: gritty, everyone going hard all the time, no lulls at all,” Rafferty said. “That’s on the leadership, that’s on me, we’ve got to get back to that as soon as possible.”
The following day, Richey gathered his team in a small conference room above the Timmons Arena floor. Without saying a word, he turned on the projector. A three-minute highlight video played of the team’s accomplishments that season. All the dunks, the celebrations, the fun. Just as it finished he spoke up:
“How does that make you feel watching that?”
“Man, that seems like that’s so long ago,” one player replied.
“That whole feeling internally was so much different,” said another.
“How does that feel different than how you felt an hour ago when you walked in here?” Richey asked.
“Well, why? It’s the same team,” Richey said. “This is you, this is what you’ve done. You can’t let getting beat by two quality opponents on the road dethrottle everything that’s going on.”
That night the team went to a booster’s house for dinner, and the strain among them seemed to vanish. When they reconvened for a two-hour practice the next day, the energy had returned. Two days of spirited practice followed.
“Seeing that video right there just gave us a little sense of relief,” Lyons says now. “We got a little bit of our swagger back.”
The team gathered in the same cramped conference room that Wednesday to install the game plan for Mercer, their upcoming opponent. They had two important things to discuss.
First, Richey announced that senior Andrew Brown would be removed from the starting lineup. Brown was an emotional leader on the team after recovering from a complication to a hernia surgery that caused a potentially life-threatening situation, and aside from that, a three-year starter. A foot injury he sustained during the Loyola Chicago game had held him out of seven contests during Furman’s winning streak, and Richey was concerned that his reinsertion had disrupted the balance of the rotation. Before the team met Richey approached him individually about the change, and Brown responded, “If it’s best for the team, I want to do it.”
The meeting’s second emphasis was how the team would guard Mercer’s Ross Cummings. Coming into the game shooting 39.4 percent from three on nearly eight attempts per game, Cummings fit an archetype the Paladins knew they would face repeatedly in conference play. Two of the SoCon’s top contenders, Wofford and UNC Greensboro, each boasted sharpshooters of the same ilk. To defend him, sophomore Alex Hunter was given primary “no catch” duties, a strategy Furman had not used all season. The team reviewed how and where Cummings liked to get his shots in a quick film session, and simulated the actions in practice that day.
On Thursday the game tips off and everything falls into place. The team’s energy is noticeably improved, and the bench erupts in celebration when sophomore Tre Clark throws down a ridiculous poster dunk. Brown’s replacement in the starting lineup, freshman Noah Gurley, hits back-to-back threes in the first half and finishes with 11 points and six rebounds. And the defense holds Cummings to just 10 points on one of five attempts from behind the arc, with three turnovers.
I'm currently at the Furman-Mercer game and LOOK WHAT JUST HAPPENED— Matt Craig (@MrMattCraig) January 4, 2019
Sophomore Tre Clark ELEVATING! pic.twitter.com/jUlzIwt9bu
As Richey enters the locker room after the game, the team begins shouting and jumping around, forming a mosh pit around him for a few moments of unrestrained joy. The swagger was back. Richey couldn’t mask his excitement as he addressed the team.
“We locked Cummings up!” he shouted. “That was full-on clamp mode out there. Why? Because we were connected.”
The team responds with a round of applause. Richey recalls Brown’s comments about the lineup change and commends him in front of the team for his humility. Another round of applause. Richey congratulates Rafferty on 1,000 career points. Applause. Richey then lets it die down before uttering a more serious line.
“I asked a lot of dudes to be mature in how we handled the last few days, this adversity,” he says. He mentions the efforts of the upperclassmen, who are set to become the winningest group in Furman history. “The thousand points, that’s great, but what you all have done for the program, that’s special; you’re leaders, you’re freaking warriors.”
With renewed enthusiasm, the Paladins dispatched The Citadel on Saturday and VMI on Thursday to keep pace near the top of the conference standings. Despite the losses, all of the team’s goals are still very much on the table. At 15-2, they are on pace to shatter any number of school records.
“We’ve already done special things,” says Lyons, “but I think we can do a lot more.”
On Saturday, their “no catch” strategy will be put to the test against 14-3 UNC Greensboro and their sharpshooting guard Francis Alonso. With the current strength of the SoCon, Richey knows adversity will strike again before the end of the year. But through this experience he believes his team is better prepared. And with the current state of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, a bid to the Big Dance will be decided by four days in March at the conference championships in Asheville, North Carolina, no matter what.
Even now, Richey refuses to be defined simply by the wins and losses. Just as he did during last season’s decision not to pursue the postseason, or the closing minutes of the LSU game, he tries to maintain perspective.
“We’ve got a little bit bigger vision than just winning games here; we want to have a program,” he says.
He hopes to build up a base of local alumni, hired through his Further the Man program, who can stay connected and invest in future Furman basketball teams.
“We’re not going to have lottery picks, we might have one pro per year,” he says. “But [businesses] might have somebody right out of the gate at 23 years old that’s ready to get something done.”
Two of last year’s four graduates stayed in Greenville, something Richey says has never happened previously. One was hired as a commercial real estate agent, an opportunity that came about when his program mentor called around town and set up three interviews with three top local firms. He comes back to every game and a fair number of practices. The other was hired by Richey himself, joining the staff as a Director of Recruiting. Richey hopes for similar outcomes from this year’s crop of seniors.
The rest of this young team will stay behind, developing into the next set of leaders. The cycle repeats. At this rate, opposing fans won’t be calling Furman o-ver-rated for long.