Surprise: Perfect Furman hoping to end NCAA tourney drought

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Furman forward Clay Mounce has a simple question in the team video before the Paladins take the court each home game: “Haven’t you heard of us?”

Not many college basketball fans have.

Though it’s a question fewer people are ask ing about Furman, which is in the Top 25 for the first time. The undefeated Paladins (12-0) have road wins over last year’s Final Four participant Loyola Chicago and defending national champ Villanova.

Nonetheless, most college basketball fans probably haven’t bought into the plucky Paladins yet and Furman forward Matt Rafferty said with a grin, “I don’t know if they will.”

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But Furman, which won two games last week and still dropped a spot to No. 24, has an opportunity for another resume-building road win when the Paladins travel to LSU on Friday night, the Paladin final game before starting Southern Conference play.

“It’s a big one,” Furman coach Bob Richey said.

The Paladins are among nine undefeated teams left out of 353 Division I programs through Saturday. They made their first-ever appearance in the Top 25 earlier this month and see LSU as a next step toward ending a 38-year NCAA Tournament drought.

Richey expects his players will be ready for the moment as they were when they trailed Loyola Chicago by 13 points in the second half and won 60-58 on Mounce’s one-handed jam with 1.6 seconds to go. Or when they opened overtime at Villanova with a 7-0 run in the 76-68 win.

“In life, most of the time, when you get big opportunities, it still comes back to the simplest fundamentals,” Richey said. “There’s not going to be anything that we’ve got to go do different than what we’ve done in order to try and play our best.”

Here’s a quick introduction to Furman basketball:

THE COACH

Richey, 35, joined Furman as an assistant in 2011 and earned the head coaching job after the 2017 season after former coach Niko Medved left for Drake. Ever since, Richey’s led a revival at Furman, which hasn’t enjoyed this sort of basketball attention since the 1970s when it played in six NCAA Tournaments from 1971-80.

NOT A FLUKE

Furman tied its school record with 23 victories last season, Richey’s first as a fulltime coach. The Paladins are already more than halfway to that mark.

THE PLAYERS

— Jordan Lyons, a junior, is the team’s leading scorer who had 54 points in defeating North Greenville earlier this season. He’s joined in the backcourt by Andrew Brown, who along with Rafferty, are Furman’s only two seniors in d its main rotation.

— Rafferty is a 6-foot-8 forward — Furman has no players taller than 6-8 — who’s adept and relentless in post, whether it’s backing down opponents for a layup and grabbing a rebound to keep the Paladins possession alive. He’s had six games with double figure points and rebounds this season, including 15 points and 17 rebounds at Villanova.

— Mounce is a dynamic, 6-7 sophomore comfortable with playing inside and outside. His cut toward the basket from the three-point line sprung him for the game-winning dunk at Loyola Chicago. He had six of Furman’s 17 3-pointers this past Saturday in the blowout win over UNC Wilmington.

It all has added up to high expectations for Furman basketball.

The Paladins’ early run has electrified the well-respected private school that has had a few stellar athletic moments. In 1954, Frank Selvy became the school’s “Man of the Century” when he scored 100 points in a game against Newberry and remains the only Division I player to accomplish the feat.

Sam Wyche may be Furman’s most recognizable athletic alum. He was Furman’s quarterback in the late 1960s before he helped revolutionize the game with the no huddle offense. The Paladins football program also won a national Football Champion Subdivision title in 1988 and has been runner-up two other times.

Former U.S. men’s soccer captain Clint Dempsey played at Furman before his accomplished international career.

These days, however, the hype around Greenville, South Carolina is about hoops.

Brown, a senior guard, said professors and students who hadn’t paid much attention to the team now congratulate him regularly and ask for updates. Selvy and Wyche both attended Saturday’s win against UNC Wilmington.

“They seem like they get better every year,” said Selvy, also a former head coach at Furman.

Selvy would love to see the Paladins back in the NCAAs since their last appearance in 1980 as would students who filled 3,500-seat Timmons Arena with chants of “We Want Kansas” as time ran down in the UNC Wilmington win.

Rafferty believes Furman’s successful ride will continue.

“It’s really coming together for us,” Rafferty said. “That’s one of biggest things if we’re going to keep this thing going, we’ve got to stay confident and stay humble.”

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