I had barely departed Jerry Richardson Indoor Coliseum on Sunday when my thoughts moved forward to Wednesday, when the Southern Conference’s top team – in the standings – visits Timmons Arena.
As a matter of fact, I was thinking about the Samford game when I drove up. Not being a member of the team, or any team worth mentioning, I don’t have to take them a game at a time. Sitting at a table next to John Hooper on the concourse – the majesty of ESPNU pushed us upstairs – among the 1st remarks I made was, “This is a big game, and if Furman doesn’t win, Wednesday gets a bit smaller.”
Furman did win, 96-82, and I drove back home with an intense warmth, almost a giddiness, of satisfaction. The Paladins took the Terriers’ best shots – one of them to Garrett Hien’s head – and overcame Tyrese Hughey’s sickness and Jalen Slawson’s foul trouble to win in a hostile atmosphere.
Early in the 2nd half, I ducked into a nearby restroom, and it occurred to me that I could pull off a column by spending an entire game in there and judging the game solely by the sound of the roars. I knew what was happening because a Furman score was about half as loud as a Wofford score. It’s the best atmosphere for a game between rivals.
I’m never going to do that, of course, because it’s weird.
Samford head coach Bucky McMillan has been walking the furrowed fields of my mind, to borrow the words of Alex Harvey and Barry Jack Etris in an old Kenny Rogers song titled “Reuben James,” since I sat in on the media conference following Furman’s 71-68 victory over the Bulldogs on March 6, 2022, in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament.
At the time, I thought that McMillan’s remarks would have been great for a booster -club gathering but were a bit much for a media confab.
In the intervening period, his words grew and I came to recall them as something along the lines of Howard Dean after the Vermont governor’s excitable remarks at the 2004 Iowa Caucus.
In the game story, I used this quotation from the Samford coach:
“They know who Samford is now. We’ll be back here, in this tournament, and we’re going to win this tournament. We’re not going to be content being in the bottom two or three in the league. We’re going to be at the top of this league, and we’re going to stay at the top of this league.”
This morning I tracked down the full video of McMillan’s and Jermaine Marshall’s media appearances. It wasn’t nearly as strident as I remembered.
To date, McMillan’s plans have gone according to his predictions. As Walt Whitman said, “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.” Dizzy Dean said it, too, and I can’t imagine Ol’ Diz reading up on Whitman beforehand.
Samford is 8-0 in the SoCon. Furman, the preseason favorite, is 6-2. This is the halfway point of the conference season. The Paladins play the teams, Samford and UNC Greensboro, ahead of them in the standings this week.
They’re must-wins. Wednesday night is must-see. Timmons Arena figures to be rocking. Both the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu are in order.
Samford is exactly where Coach McMillan predicted it would be. From the Furman perspective, it is precisely where the Paladins aspire to be.
The two are mutually exclusive. My expectation is an exceptional game.
I think I felt the happiest writing about Sunday’s game that I have all year. Maybe South Carolina, but I was watching that one on TV. Going through Elena Davidson’s photos, I was struck by the lovely backdrops in Wofford’s stately venue. I enjoyed every moment and went to bed grateful.
It was the season’s best display of Furman’s talent and depth. The Paladins had many obstacles to overcome. Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson were, well, Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson in all their glory. They are champions who deserve the record to show it.
Slawson fouled out. A blunt instrument known as a Wofford elbow swinging wildly felled Garrett Hien. Tyrese Hughey was sick and didn’t dress.
They weren’t disadvantages. Alex Williams and Ben Vanderwal displayed their considerable talent. J.P. Pegues showed what he can do when unburdened by management of the firepower displayed around him.
I know, and Bob Richey knows, that Furman has to play even better and at full strength against Samford.
Citing the Wofford game recently completed, Richey said, “We get 6 fouls on us quick again. The count was 6-0 in the 2nd half and quick. At the timeout, I said, ‘Guys, we can’t make the next foul because they’re going to start shooting free throws. So we can’t foul.’ Fortunately, we quit fouling. It’s amazing what you can do when you quit fouling and you go vertical wall-ups. You make people make shots over you. Those are what you call ‘affected twos.’ Contested shots.
“A lot of times, when you look at all the foul baskets, if you [are] just disciplined, and you play with your hands up or out, it’s going to make it a tougher shot. Sometimes, early in a half, we get this flexible thinking that we can foul. We’ve got to quit fouling.”
Furman is getting dialed in by the continuing tutelage of Richey and his assistants. The mainstays are vigilant. The reserves are adjusting to their roles. The newcomers are emerging.
It’s a beautiful thing. A work of art is in order for Wednesday night. That’s what it will take.