After decades of relative insignificance and mediocrity, Furman basketball punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament by winning the Southern Conference Championship in Asheville last weekend. Their last tournament appearance was 43 years ago. I was 12.
This team is already getting national attention, and it has what it takes to surprise a first-round opponent and then perhaps battle their way into the sweet 16. Here’s the short history and what you’ll want to know while you enjoy the ride.
THE SHORT INFO:
Where is Furman? Greenville, SC. One of the most beautiful campuses there is.
What is a Paladin: A knight renowned for heroism and chivalry.
The cheer: When we are happy or upset, you will sometimes hear us yelling our school initials. We’re just really proud of Furman University, that’s all. Yeah.
In the 70s, I watched in person as Furman traveled to beat NC State and UNC in the same weekend. Those were the old glory days, but the program’s success declined and they could never seem to gain any traction.
When Niko Medved was hired in 2013, his direction and leadership began to bring Furman basketball back into relevance. But as often happens with smaller schools, the successful coaches typically get gobbled up by the bigger programs that can offer more of that green paper everyone loves so much. In 2017 Niko moved on and one of Niko’s assistants, Bob Richey, was handed the reigns.
The first time I heard Bob Richey speak I knew he had the tools to be successful. There’s a charisma and energy about him that is inspiring. Under his leadership the Paladins boast a 111-46 record, a welcome change from where the program had previously been. But Bob’s leadership is about more than basketball wins, it is about life, and shaping the people on this team into men.
Last season was one of Furman’s best. After decades of missing out, they claimed a spot in the conference championship game against Chattanooga, and were ahead with only a few seconds remaining, ready to begin the celebration. But they were forced to watch in disbelief when an off-balance, prayer of a 3-point shot fell in to end the game, and their hopes for the NCAA tournament. I was heartbroken as a fan, but more so for them. I had seen the work they had put in.
Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, each with a final year of eligibility, could have left Furman to play most anywhere in the country.
Head coach Bob Richey, now with plenty of coaching credibility and an offer from an SEC school, could’ve left as well. But Bob said he needed to stay. Bothwell and Slawson stayed too. They stayed to finish what they started, and Furman fans will never, ever be able to thank them enough.
Now they’ve broken the curse and have earned their way into the big dance. At this point they have nothing to lose, which will be to their advantage. If they can play loose and have fun, look out. They could sneak into the Sweet 16 with most of America cheering them on as the Cinderella they deserve to be.
The first game will be March 16 against Virginia in Orlando, FL. I’m moving heaven and earth to get there.
This team is special. We’d love to have you cheering us on.