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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 16 Furman Paladins

Four starters return after Furman’s record-setting season

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 25-8 (13-5 SoCon, tied for 3rd in SoCon), NIT First Round

Key Returning Players: Jordan Lyons (G, Sr.), Clay Mounce (F, RS-Jr.), Noah Gurley (F, RS-So), Alex Hunter (G, Jr.), Jaylon Pugh (G, So.), Mike Bothwell (G, So.), Jalen Slawson (F/C, So.), Tre Clark (G, Jr.)

Key Losses: Matt Rafferty (F), Andrew Brown (G), Jalen Williams (F)

Key Newcomers: Colin Kenney (G, Fr.), Marcus Foster (G, Fr.), Jonny Lawrence (F/C, Fr.), Ben Beeker (Fr, F/C)

Furman has spent the last four years on an upwards trajectory, going from a 5-13 SoCon regular season in 2015 to some time in the national rankings last year. Next up, the hope is for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Paladins will return four starters, but the one they lost is the great Matt Rafferty. Furman also graduated Andrew Brown, who finished his career with the second-highest three-point percentage in school history.

Key non-conference games:

Winning 12 of 13 games in the non-conference last year fueled quite a run for Furman, with wins over Loyola University Chicago and Villanova resulting in a Top 25 appearance. This year, the Paladins’ Power 5 opportunities come against Alabama and Auburn.

“We have the same mentality and that is going into those games was the belief that we’re gonna win,” senior Jordan Lyons said. “We think we’re gonna get it done and as long as everyone in our locker room is locked in and believes it, that all we need.”

Nov. 5 at Gardner-Webb
Nov. 8 vs. Loyola Chicago
Nov. 19 at Alabama
Dec. 5 at Auburn
Dec. 14 vs. Winthrop

Three things to watch:

Replacing Matt Rafferty

There’s no underestimating how much Rafferty meant to this team, as he led the Paladins in scoring (17.5 PPG), assists (141), rebounding (9.0 RPG), steals (84), and field goal percentage (61.5%).

“Obviously losing Raff is huge because he was one of the greatest players here ever,” Lyons said. “But we have a lot of guys like Alex [Hunter], Clay [Mounce], Tre [Clark], Mike [Bothwell] and a lot of guys that have worked really hard this offseason. We really have a lot of guys who have taken their game to another level in the spring, in the summer, and in the preseason.”

Not only did Rafferty manage to put together one of the best seasons in Furman basketball history, he managed to put together one of the best season’s in college basketball history. The only other guy to post comparable numbers across all major offensive categories? Larry Bird.

Head coach Bob Richey isn’t worried about finding someone to replace Rafferty. The program has lost stars before and has always recovered.

“A lot of that is because the emphasis we put on team, and that we put on being connected and playing together, and we really spend a lot of time during the offseason developing leadership and making sure we understand that, ‘hey this is gonna take a whole group,’” he said.

Noah Gurley has put on about 20 pounds in the offseason, which will help him do some of the things in the paint that Rafferty was able to do.

Consistency from players like Gurley and forward Clay Mounce will go a long way in determining how well Furman is able to carry on without Rafferty.

Jordan Lyons

If there is one player worth the price of admission, it’s Jordan Lyons. After all, Lyons gave fans moments to remember for a lifetime last season.

Lyons has the potential to score points in bunches, as evidenced by his 54-point effort against North Greenville last year. That was the most in a game for a Division I player since Jodie Meeks matched that total for Kentucky against Tennessee in 2009.

He set a single-season Furman record with 105 triples last season and is Furman’s leading returning scorer at 16.2 points per game.

With another strong year shooting from three-point land in 2019-20, Lyons could end up setting a school record for three-point field goals in a career. Lyons has connected on 211 career three-point field goals, and needs 62 more to break the all-time Furman record.

Taking another step forward

The key to Furman’s season in 2019-20 will come down to three statistical categories: offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and three-point field goal percentage.

Over the past two seasons in Richey’s perimeter-oriented offense, the Paladins have ranked No. 41 and No. 45, respectively, in offensive efficiency. Again, a testament to Richey’s philosophy of keeping the whole team involved.

The Paladins made the biggest jump from year one to year two under Riche on the defensive end, improving their defensive efficiency from 66th (0.978) in 2017-18 to 39th (0.947) in 2018-19.

“The biggest thing that I think will get us over the top this season will be even a more heightened attention to detail,” Lyons said. “Man we were so close. So close last year, and I think you know we know what to expect a little better now and might know how to handle certain situations when we need to be locked in and focused.”

The X Factor:

A collective X-Factor

Replacing a player like Rafferty with one guy isn’t really plausible, but collectively replacing him with talented players like Gurley, Jalen Slawson, and sharp-shooting, 6’10 newcomer Jonny Lawrence is something that seems more reasonable.

If you’re looking for a Furman player to make that dramatic leap in production this season, take Slawson.

Furman has the talent to put together another solid year, and the Paladins seem closer than ever to making a return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-decade drought. The window of opportunity isn’t going to be open forever. The time is now.