Furman’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 43 years has plenty of exciting storylines, and while the Paladins have two fifth-year stars in Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson that will immediately grab the attention of the national media, it’s Furman’s sophomore point guard JP Pegues that has been the centerpiece of why the Paladins are playing some of their best basketball at the right time.
Take a deep dive inside this Furman basketball team, which won a school-record 27 games, and you can find plenty of angles to write about. If you’ve watched Furman play this season, you’ll notice that the young point guard has a different gear. He shoots the ball as well as anyone on Furman’s roster. He also takes tremendous care of the basketball. He’s a bad man.
This season, Pegues is currently averaging 12.0 PPG and 3.8 RPG. He finished the 2022-23 Southern Conference season ranking second in the league with 4.0 assists per game, and he is the spark plug of an energetic offense that comes in ranking high nationally in several different categories.
The Paladins rank eighth in all of NCAA Division I college basketball in total assists per game (17.1 APG), as well as 11th in scoring offense (82.1 PPG), 19th in field goal percentage (48.3%), 19th in 3-pointers made (324 or 9.5 per game) and 11th in effective 3-point field goal percentage (56.4%).
Pegues ranked second in the SoCon in assists-to-turnover ratio (2.3). He also shoots the three ball pretty well, shooting 35.0% (65-of-186) from long range this season. His 65 3-pointers led the Paladins this season.
Yet despite all that, he was left off all three of the All-SoCon teams by the coaches and media and didn’t even make the SoCon All-Freshman team last season. He would become just the third player in the past two decades to not make any all-conference team, yet win the SoCon Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, joining both Chattanooga’s Greg Pryor (2016) and ETSU’s Isaiah Tisdale (2020).
“We keep a few receipts around here,” head coach Bob Richey said following Furman’s SoCon Championship win over Chattanooga.
But maybe the thing that makes Pegues’ rise as such an important player for the Paladins this season is literally because he was asked to fill the role of a player that will be remembered as one of the best point guards to ever play for the Paladins, in Alex Hunter. Hunter finished his career with the ultimate heartbreak with the loss to Chattanooga, 64-63, last March, and unlike Bothwell or Slawson, Hunter didn’t have the opportunity to return and win a championship this season, as his eligibility was up.
Hunter graduated as the winningest player in Furman basketball history (112 wins). Bothwell and Slawson recently surpassed Hunter’s all-time wins total. What also made Hunter such a tough player to replace was his shooting ability and his care with the basketball. He led the SoCon in assists-to-turnover ratio from the start of the 2018-19 season all the way until his final campaign as a Paladin guard in 2021-22.
For Pegues and the rest of the Paladins, though, all this is new.
“Even in high school, I never won a championship, so all this is brand new to me,” Pegues said. “The night after we won was totally different than the year before when I woke up hoping it was all a dream, and this time it wasn’t a dream and to say that we finally did it and achieved everything we worked for and went through…it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Pegues came into the 2022-23 season as one of head coach Bob Richey’s three options at point guard position, along with Carter Whitt (transfer from Wake Forest) and Joe Anderson. It didn’t take long for Pegues to be given the job almost exclusively.
It could be argued that one of the main reasons the Paladins cut down the nets in Asheville was Pegues becoming one of the Paladins’ top scorers. He averaged 21.0 PPG over the course of the three-game tournament.
The Nashville, Tenn., native comes into the NCAA Tournament having scored in double figures in 15 of the past 16 games for Furman. That includes posting a career-high 26 points in Furman’s 96-82 win at Wofford in late January. The 26-point performance against the Terriers was one of six 20-point games he recorded this season.
His first 20-point game came against Old Dominion back in November, and even in the early going, it became clear he was starting to get comfortable playing his new position after he spent his rookie season in Greenville playing off the ball.
Furman started to really pick things up around the middle of January. After Pegues and company were on the wrong end of an 88-80 overtime loss at home to UNC Greensboro, the Paladins raised their game to a new level. This almost directly coincided with Pegues finding a new level as a reliable third scorer over the last month-and-a-half of the season, and Furman commence an eight-game streak.
“Right around the start of the winning streak is when I noticed us starting to really click as a team,” Pegues said. “I think it was an eight-game win streak, and you could kinda just feel it. Our demeanor was different, and our attitude was different. You could kinda see that certain guys were clicking with one another and everybody seemed like they were getting on the same page, but also I would say the losses shaped us, too… The losses shaped us, and they helped give us our identity.”
The win streak started with the Paladins picking up a 77-69 win at Chattanooga in what was an important road test against the Mocs and star center Jake Stephens.
Late in the season, Furman’s lone hiccup came on the road at arch-rival The Citadel, as the Paladins dropped a 69-65 contest in arguably the Paladins’ worst performance of the 2022-23 season. The Paladins would be stagnant offensively, and just looked tired at times during the loss.
Pegues would come up big in each of Furman’s six remaining games, with three in the regular-season and all three in the tournament.
When Mercer came to Timmons Arena and slowed the pace against the ‘Dins, it was Pegues to the rescue once again, as the Paladins moved closer towards their regular-season goal of a title and the No. 1 seed in Asheville for the SoCon Tournament.
Late in the game against the Bears, Pegues was crucial. He connected on arguably the biggest shot of the night for the Paladins as his right elbow three gave the Paladins a 61-56 lead with 2:45 left. It sparked a 7-0 run as he and Slawson helped fuel the Paladins offensively down the stretch. The Paladins pulled out what was a hard-fought 70-67 win, which set up a winner-take-all game in Birmingham against Samford.
With a win over Samford at the Pete Hanna Center in Birmingham, the Paladins would tie for the Bulldogs for the regular-season SoCon title, and it would mean that Furman would be the No. 1 overall seed in the conference tournament for the first time since 1991.
When Bothwell started the game off with 18-straight points, helping the Paladins to an 18-7 lead on the road, that eased the pressure in the game. It would be Pegues who would step up later in the contest and provide even more clutch scoring, as he would help fill a scoring void when Bothwell was saddled with foul trouble and when Samford started to make a run.
He finished the contest with 20 points, connecting on 7-of-12 shots from the field, including a 4-for-7 performance from 3-point range as the Paladins earned a convincing 93-79 road win in Birmingham.
In the tournament, Pegues put together performances of 22, 24 and 17 points to help the Paladins garner their first tournament invite in over four decades. Taking his game to a different level over the latter half of the season was ultimately the piece the Paladins had to have along with their two all-conference stars.
One of the more amazing things about JP Pegues is his own demeanor, and looking back on it, his development into what amounts to a complete point guard has in a lot of ways been shaped by his love for his teammates.
“I knew [my teammates] couldn’t do it all by themselves,” Pegues said. “I felt like it was my responsibility to do something. Even going into the tournament, coming out of our team meetings and stuff I knew these guys were going to need some help and that it was going to take all of us at the end of the day to accomplish what we wanted to. So I just thought I will do my part, and it ended up helping us in the end.”
To some it all up, both Slawson and Bothwell have referred to their point guard as the best in the SoCon over the latter half of the season, with even Slawson adding that Pegues will be SoCon Player of the Year before his career is complete in Greenville. That’s some lofty praise from a guy that just won that same award this season.