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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 17 Furman Paladins

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Despite 115 wins over the past five seasons, the Paladins head into the 2020-21 season with a 41-year NCAA Tournament drought.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 08 Furman at UT-Chattanooga Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2019-20 Record: 25-7, 15-3 SoCon (2nd in SoCon)

Key Returning Players: Clay Mounce (F, Sr.), Alex Hunter (G, Sr.), Noah Gurley (F, RS-Jr.), Mike Bothwell (G, Jr.), Jalen Slawson (F, Jr.), Jaylon Pugh (G, Jr.), Colin Kenney (G, So.), Ben Beeker (F, So), Jonny Lawrence (RS-Fr), Marcus Foster (RS-Fr)

Key Losses: Jordan Lyons, Tre Clark (transferred to Rice)

Key Newcomers: Joe Anderson (G, Fr), Garrett Hien (F, Fr.)

1980. It was the dawn of a decade in the United States. The average cost of gas was $1.19, the average income per year was a little under $20K and Jimmy Carter was president.

Mount Saint Helens erupted, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 31-19 in the Super Bowl, and Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals claimed the NCAA Basketball crown, and oh yeah, I was born on April 28 of that year.

The 1980s was arguably the greatest decade of in the history of the United States for a myriad of reasons.

It was also a special one for Furman basketball, as it was the last time the Paladins saw their team go dancing in March under the direction of head coach Eddie Holbrook. The Paladins knocked off VMI, East Tennessee State, and Marshall to claim their sixth Southern Conference Tournament crown.

In the ensuing NCAA Tournament, Furman took on Tennessee in the 48-team field, losing 80-69 in the opening round. That 1980 Paladin team featured the likes of Jonathan Moore, Mel Daniel, and Ron White, who helped the Paladins to the 23-7 record, which at the time, was a school record for victories in a season.

The 2020s have gotten off to, shall we say, a less-than-stellar start.

Furman and head coach Bob Richey aren’t excuse-makers, and while, yes, it’s been a tough year for the country, it’s been a tough four decades enduring its NCAA Tournament drought for Furman basketball.

Under Richey, Furman has had four-straight seasons with school-record win totals, winning 23 in back-to-back campaigns and 25 in consecutive seasons. Furman’s 15 wins in Southern Conference play were a school record last season, and the Paladins were a perfect 12-0 at Timmons Arena — a place where the Paladins are 63-11 since the start of the 2015-16 season.

Now, we see if they can break through to the Dance.

3 Things To Watch:

Depth

One of the areas that Furman has lacked over the past two seasons is depth. Seven- and eight-man rotations have made the road particularly tough at times, especially in the front court when players have gotten into foul trouble early.

Part of the thin bench the past couple of seasons has to do with the way Richey is effectively building the Paladin basketball program with that “work while you wait” mentality. That mentality is utilized with the redshirt year masterfully to develop players within the program, instead of having to roll over the roster every season.

Richey is big on identity, and by redshirting and developing the athlete — not just in basketball terms but life terms — you get that. There’s the natural trade-off that in some seasons you'll have a seven- or eight-man rotation, but in others the depth will be more than available to get the job at-hand accomplished.

The non-conference slate

In a season when most teams have had such difficulty scheduling games, Furman was no exception. In fact, the Paladins had trouble finding anyone that wanted to play them, which is one the perils that many good mid-major programs face.

Furman also had to scramble when its MTE was canceled by ESPN in Orlando and put a big premium on quality of opponent over quantity.

One of the more intriguing non-conference games that will give the Paladins the chance to earn a signature win will be against Richmond. The Spiders, who received 40 votes for the AP Top 25 that released Monday afternoon, will host Furman on Dec. 5, while the Spiders will return that game to Furman next season.

“I think you want both quality and quantity,“ Richey said. “We have an obligation to get our kids as many games as we can get them and we also owe that to our fans.”

A swagger and a chip

One of the players that started to emerge last season as a true scorer and a player that caused matchup problems for opponents is Mike Bothwell (10.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.2 APG ). The 6’3, 190-pound junior from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, really started to emerge as one of the Paladins’ more reliable scorers in a variety of ways with the start of conference play.

Bothwell will be a player asked to fill some huge shoes with the graduation of Jordan Lyons, but then again, Bothwell seems immune to the pressure. It’s why Furman has replaced Stephen Croone, Devin Sibley, Kris Acox, Matt Rafferty — all great players from this run of success — without missing a beat.

Bothwell is the latest of this crop. Check out this quote from Richey in the Blue Ribbon 2020-21 Preview below, which sums up everything you need to know about Furman’s swagger and chip it carries because it is questioned seemingly every year for having to replace ‘the guy.’

“Chattanooga was his coming out party. He can really shoot the ball and can really finish. He’s a lefty with incredible feel. And he’s a freaking gamer. He doesn’t give a damn. ‘Just give me the ball and I’ll take us home.’”

Furman’s other assassins are known and experienced. In fact, the Paladin front court of Clay Mounce, Jalen Slawson and Noah Gurley, which has started for the past three seasons, has a combined 177 starts.

Mounce and Gurley are two of the top five players in the league, and they are also two of the best shooting bigs in the nation. The duo combined to shoot 39.5% (83-of-210) from three-point range last season, and are the Paladins top two returning scorers, with Gurley averaging 14.3 PPG and Mounce chipping in 13.2 PPG.

The unquestioned leader of the Paladin backcourt this winter will be senior Alex Hunter. Last season, Hunter averaged 8.9 points, 3.7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. The Raleigh, North Carolina, native has been outstanding and poised throughout his career handling the point for the Paladins. Hunter has started there each of the past three years, and has been the go-to guy ever since the graduation of John Davis III.

Hunter finished out 2019-20 with just 37 turnovers in over 1,000 minutes of court action, and he completed the campaign ranking third in the nation in assist/turnover ratio (3.55). Hunter completed the 2019-20 campaign with 15 double-figure performances.

X-Factor

Marcus Foster

Though many new faces will contribute to Furman’s successes in 2020-21, there is one that sticks out: Marcus Foster.

He’s the player that has a chance to have an immediate impact, and he will fill in much of the role left by Tre Clark following his transfer to Rice, especially on the defensive end.

It’s no secret that Foster could have played last season. In Foster, Furman has that defensive edge intact, which some might have thought it lost with Clark’s transfer. Foster is every bit as good defensively as Clark was and better offensively, however, probably not the athlete as Clark was.