By: Lucius Harvin, Staff Writer
Sitting at 15-4 overall and 4-3 in conference play, the Furman Paladins are one of the biggest surprises of the year in college basketball. The Paladins, led by junior Jordan Lyons and senior Matt Rafferty, have captured the nation’s attention by knocking off two of last year’s Final Four teams. In wins on the road against Loyola Chicago and defending national champion Villanova, Furman announced to the nation that they were not to be underestimated. Furman raced to an unblemished 12-0 record and were ranked as high as number 23 in the nation. Even though the Paladins have only won 3 of their last 7 games, it is clear that they are a contender in the ever competitive Southern Conference.
One of the reasons the Paladins have exceeded expectations is the production of the underclassmen on the team. Sophomores Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter as well as redshirt-freshman Noah Gurley played valuable minutes for a team that lost their three leading scorers heading into the season. Those players, combined with Rafferty and Lyons are contributing to one of the most prolific starting lineups in Furman history. Earlier this season, Lyons tied the NCAA record for 15 three pointers in a game, while scoring 54 points in a blowout win over North Greenville. Rafferty, meanwhile, leads the entire Southern Conference in field goal percentage shooting 63-percent from the floor.
Over winter break, the Paladins suffered their first defeat of the year in a 75-57 loss at LSU followed by a difficult stretch in conference play that included losses on the road to Wofford, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State, the three top teams in the conference. Lyons, after an incredible start, has cooled off a bit and the Paladins have struggled from three. Furthermore, outside of Rafferty, Furman does not have a clear post player and teams have been beating them on the offensive and defensive glass. In the game against LSU, the Tigers grabbed 18 more rebounds than the undersized Paladins which contributed to the 18 point loss.
The competition Furman has played the last few weeks has been a significant step up from the non-conference schedule. Road games against the Buccaneers, Spartans and Terriers provided challenging games for Lyons and company, but the schedule in the second half of the season remains favorable with the most difficult games at home. In their four conference wins against Western Carolina, VMI, The Citadel and Mercer, Furman faced little resistance which should provide the team some confidence as they dive right back into the depths of conference schedule.