A long time coming
For Devin Sibley ’18, the history of the Furman men’s basketball program began the day he set foot on campus in 2014 as a highly touted freshman out of Karns High School in Knoxville, Tenn. For many long-suffering hoops fans, that’s starting to seem like a pretty good place for them to start, too.
“We find that stuff out after the fact,” Sibley, a 6-2 junior guard who leads the team in scoring at 17.3 points per game, said. “All that’s fun to hear about, but we’re focused on just winning.”
“That stuff” is an ever-growing list of accomplishments that starts with the phrase “for the first time since” and ends with a year from a long time ago, including first 20-victory season since 2011, first back-to-back winning seasons since 2004-05/2005-06 and first regular-season Southern Conference championship since 1991. Now, Furman and fourth-year coach Niko Medved have their sights set on the Holy Grail of firsts—Furman’s first NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearance since 1980.
For the first time since, well, a very long time, Furman will be one of the strong favorites when the SoCon tournament begins Friday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C., with the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA field waiting for the winner. The 21-10 Paladins, who shared the regular-season title with East Tennessee State and UNC-Greensboro, are seeded second and will play the winner of the Samford-VMI Friday night contest Saturday afternoon at 6 p.m.
“I think this is probably the most excitement this program has had easily since ’91, and it may very well match that excitement and exceed it,” said associate athletics director in charge of sports information Hunter Reid, who has worked for the university for more than 30 years and would know. In fact, there probably hasn’t been this much interest in Furman men’s basketball since the glory days of coaches Joe Williams and Eddie Holbrook in the 1970s, when the Paladins had nine winning seasons in 10 years and advanced to all six NCAA tournaments in school history (1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1980).
Furman went 8-1 this season against conference foes in the cozy confines of Timmons Arena, the smallest in the SoCon, and as the win totals got bigger so did the crowds. After 1,431 showed up on Jan. 25 to watch the Paladins rout Western Carolina, 85-37, home attendance cracked 2,000 in each of the final four homes games, climbing from 2,223 for Chattanooga to 2,358 for Samford to 2,508 for UNCG, before culminating with a season-best 2,582 in the regular-season finale on Saturday, a 78-69 downing of Wofford on Senior Night that gave Furman a chance to share the league championship when UNCG knocked off ETSU on Monday.
By comparison, Furman drew 2,000 fans for a game three times last year and once the year before, and the UNCG and Wofford crowds are the two largest in Medved’s four seasons.
“When you start winning all your home games that just brings them back again and again. It’s just grown leaps and bounds,” Reid said. “But we’re playing an exciting brand of basketball that’s fun to watch.”
The 1991 Paladins, coached by Butch Estes, finished 20-9 and lost in the first round of the NIT to West Virginia. But after he left in 1994, Furman at one point suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons and had only five winning ones in the 21 years before Medved arrived on the scene, when he inherited a moribund program in 2013 coming off a 7-24 season, gutted by transfers and devoid of fan support.
Furman was just 9-21 in Medved’s first season, but he quickly began to work miracles. Though the 2014-15 team finished 11-22, four of those victories came in the final six games, capped off by a surprise run to the SoCon tournament championship game where the Paladins lost by three to a heavily favored Wofford team. That marked a turning point.
Stephen Croone ’16, the 2015-16 SoCon Player of the Year, and the maturation of Sibley, Kris Acox ’17, Daniel Fowler ’18 and Geoff Beans ’18, combined to produce a 19-16 record and a trip to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament the next season. And despite the graduation of Croone, Furman’s fifth all-time scorer, the Paladins are even better now. That’s because instead of one player leading the team in everything—as Croone did in scoring for his final three seasons as wells as assists and steals all four years he played—multiple players do.
Sibley, who was named the SoCon Player of the Year by both the media and coaches on Wednesday to give Furman back-to-back Players of the Year for the first time since Jonathan Moore ’80 was honored in 1979 and ‘80, is tops in points and 3-point field goals made (106), while the 6-4 Fowler is third in scoring at 11.3 points per game and leads the team in assists despite playing small forward. Acox, a second-team all-conference selection, paces the squad in rebounds per game (7.3) while also averaging 13 points and providing a crucial inside presence as one of the most athletic post players in the league.
John Davis ’18 has stepped in for Croone at point guard and is “playing the best basketball of his career,” according to Medved, and he contributes to Furman ranking third in the conference in 3-point shooting at 39.3 percent and second in overall field goal percentage at 48.2. But where the Paladins set themselves apart is on the defensive end, where they lead the SoCon by allowing only 66.3 points per game and holding opponents to 31.2 percent from 3-point range.
The success has come despite the loss of 6-8 post player Matt Rafferty ’19 for the season after 18 games. On Jan. 14 Furman was defeated 67-58 by Wofford in the Paladins’ first contest without him, but instead of folding they rallied to tear off their hottest run of the year.
“We lost Matt Rafferty to a season-ending injury, and he was a huge piece to the team. We found a way to regroup and figured out identity-wise who we had to be, and we went on to win 10 in a row after that game in league play, which is hard to do,” Medved said. “We’ve gone to more smaller lineups, more four-guard lineups … We always have four guys on the court who can really, really shoot the ball from the perimeter, and we space the floor really well. It’s a difficult matchup for teams on the other end.”
Medved, who on Wednesday became Furman’s first SoCon Coach of the Year since Estes in 1991, may be the only person in Furman nation for whom this weekend isn’t the most exciting thing going on. He and his wife, Erica (Nesselroad) Medved ’05, welcomed their first child, Alexa Ann, on March 1. And mother and child are doing well as Medved prepares his team for the SoCon tournament.
“We’re going to have to beat three really, really good teams to win the tournament, and that’s the focus now,” he said. “The depth of this league is strong. We’re a better team (this year), but there’s a lot of teams in our league that can say the same thing.”
Furman doesn’t have the longest stretch of NCAA tournament futility in the SoCon. That title goes to VMI, which last advanced in 1977, and The Citadel, which has never made the Big Dance in school history. Still, 36 years is long enough to not really have any idea what you’re getting into.
“Ha. Well, we’ll just have to stay tuned,” Reid said when asked what it would mean for the program and school to end the drought. “I’ve been at Furman for 31 years, and I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that because I haven’t. We’ve walked through the wilderness for a long time to get to this point, to have this opportunity. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Furman has sold out of its tournament ticket allotment for the second straight year, but others are still available through the league. If Furman wins Saturday night, the Paladins would play in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The championship game will be televised nationally by ESPN2 beginning at 7 p.m. Monday.
The Furman women finished the regular season with a 14-16 record and tied for fourth in the league. They play UNCG at 1:45 today in the first round of their tournament at the U.S. Cellular Center. The Paladin Club has partnered with Lexington Avenue Brewery in Asheville, located at 39 North Lexington Avenue, for pre- and post-game tournament activities.