When the preseason magazines hit the newsstands next month, there will likely be a team that isn’t accustomed to being the No. 1 pick in the SoCon—Furman.
Only VMI and The Citadel have longer tournament droughts than Furman, a fact that Furman assistant coach Jimmie Williams is well aware of. His players also have a sense of what it would mean to the city of Greenville to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 41 years.
“I think our guys know how much of an impact they have already had on the community. Each year I have been here…this would be year three…I have seen the relationship between the players and Greenville grow closer and closer and I think us being able to go into the Well (Bon Secours Wellness Arena in downtown Greenville) last year before some good crowds. You can tell the guys feel that,” Williams said.
“It’s funny, I had a reporter want to write an article last year about how no one on staff had been born the last time Furman won a Southern Conference Tournament title, but I was a month old having been born Feb. 13, 1980, so I was a month old and I ruined the article,” he added.
In a day when most programs are scrambling to the nearest computer to log into something that is now know as the “transfer portal”, Williams admitted he didn’t even know how to log in.
“Literally, I don’t know how to log into the portal. Most coaches we have talked to wanted to know how we already had all our recruiting finished over Zoom, and I honestly think it has a lot to do with what we have to offer. When I was recruiting in Las Vegas the first year I was an assistant, some of the players and even other coaches didn’t know what the diamond F logo on my polo even represented. Now, I don’t have to worry about it because we are a national brand, and that’s a testament to what coach Medved did before and now what Bob [Richey] is doing now. We want to develop and by develop I mean on and off the floor.”
Furman is one of only two teams in the Southern Conference that doesn’t have a transfer on its entire roster, the other team being VMI. The culture might seem out-dated to some in a world that seems to cave to the transfer portal at all levels, but Furman his charted its own course to success.
In fact, the Paladins have accepted just one transfer into the program since the 2014-15 season in Isaiah Watkins (Duquesne), who never logged one minute of action for the Paladins.
Furman only loses two players from last season’s 25-win club. However, they are two of Furman’s top seven players in leading scorer Jordan Lyons (16.5 PPG) and defensive stopper Tre Clark (3.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG) off the bench. However, what returns will likely be the reason why Furman is picked to win the 2020-21 Southern Conference title by most publications and websites who cover the league.
The team that wins the league will have to do so in an unconventional manner. That means teams are going to likely be asked to win basketball games without fans in the stands or in a bubble.
One thing can’t be disputed is that the champion will have to be mentally tough, and will have to be motivated by more than just a home crowd. Furman is an astounding 63-11 in Timmons Arena since the start of the 2015-16 season. Over the past four seasons, Furman has won 23 or more games, and 115 over the past five. Furman had electric atmospheres in its two most impressive home wins last season, which came against East Tennessee State (65-56) and Loyola Chicago (88-61).
“You can be at VMI playing in front of 200 people or you can be at Timmons Arena playing in front of a sold out crowd. The energy that this team brings is so contagious and it’s infectious. It’s like you can see it taking place. I think it will be a competitive edge for us because our guys generate their own energy. We are going to miss Timmons Arena though if we can’t have fans. There are some really great atmospheres in this league, but I would Timmons up against any of them. At the same time when we’re in there and playing in front of no one, the energy these guys have is just as intense and contagious,” Williams said.
For Furman, its toughness has been proven by its ability to overcome the loss of its leading scorer in four of the past five seasons. Coming into the 2019-20 season, the question surrounding the Paladin basketball program was how do you replace leading scorer and do-everything post Matt Rafferty. The question to be asked this year by the media and fans will be how do you replace leading scorer Jordan Lyons.
“One of the guys who has really stepped during the off-season and been more of a vocal leader has been Noah Gurley. When he speaks up, others listen. One thing that Clay Mounce told me behind closed doors, and Clay is one of those guys who tells it like it is, he said in a meeting earlier this summer that when Noah spoke, he is going to listen. And you see that kind of leadership and respect for other guys on our squad throughout our team, which is really awesome to see,” Williams said.
Noah Gurley was a second-team All-SoCon selection last season, finishing the campaign averaging 14.3 PPG and 4.6 RPG, while Clay Mounce was a third-team All-SoCon pick last season, averaging 13.2 PPG and 6.0 RPG. Gurley, who heads into his redshirt junior season, is the leading returning scorer for the Paladins and will likely enter the campaign as a first-team All-SoCon selection.
“I love that our team legitimately loves the game of basketball,” Williams noted, “Alex Hunter’s team lost only one game yesterday because a lot of scrimmages to eight, and you could just tell he was having so much fun out there playing ball.”
Alex Hunter is Furman’s returning senior point guard, who comes off a season where he averaged 8.9 PPG and 3.3 RPG, dishing out a team best 117 assists. Hunter takes great care of the basketball, as he finished the season third in the nation in assist-turnover ratio last season, at 3.55.
The fourth and final returning starter for the Paladins for the 2020-21 season is forward Jalen Slawson, who comes off a season, which saw him average 6.9 PPG and 5.1 RPG last season.
Furman’s focus has been trying to establish a little more depth. With Mike Bothwell playing the way he did down the stretch last season, Marcus Foster and Jonny Lawrence taking major steps forward in their redshirt seasons, and incoming freshmen Joe Anderson and Garrett Hien, the Paladins could have a solid nine or 10 man rotation this season.
Furman has a shot at having a special season, and even in a pandemic, Williams speaks with the confidence that this Paladin program has been able to fashion ever since making the run all the way to the SoCon title game as the No. 10 seed back in 2015. It was at that moment you knew something was about to change. Now, it’s about finding the right mix and depth to complete that process, which has been 41 years in the making.
“Building depth has really been a focus since I have been here, but at the same time part of building depth and the culture we want to promote is not throwing a player out there before he is ready. That’s all part of our development process. We’ve got as good of a starting five as any mid-major in the country.”