Bob Richey was a wide-eyed 23-year-old sitting on the bench for his first collegiate job as an assistant at Charleston Southern when a Big South team came along that was so good it expanded Richey’s belief in how good a mid-major could be.
In his final season at Winthrop, Gregg Marshall led the Eagles to an undefeated conference title and a league tournament championship, winning the 19 games by an average of 16 points. They earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament and beat Notre Dame by 10 points in the first round.
“It was just an unbelievable mid-major basketball team,” Richey said. “To watch Coach Marshall and how he built that program, it was impressive and inspiring to be honest with you. To see they could build something like that in the Big South and be that dominant and then go win in the NCAA Tournament.
“The way they executed, the way they guarded, I can still vividly remember sitting there watching them play and thinking, ‘Wow, what a team. What a well-coached team and what a talented team.’ They had everything.”
Twelve years later, Richey, now in his second season as head coach at Furman, will get a chance to match up with Marshall, now in his 12th season at Wichita State. No. 3 seed Furman (25-7) will play No. 6 seed Wichita State (19-14) at 6 p.m. Central time Wednesday in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament with the game being streamed on Watch ESPN.
After the matchup was revealed Sunday evening, Richey couldn’t help but remember that Winthrop team coached by Marshall when watching the Shockers’ games in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
“Some of the same actions they were running back in the day, the corner rip action from the baseline, they’re still running them now,” Richey said. “It’s a very good basketball coach who will have his team very well prepared and it’s an honor to be able to play against those guys.”
It would have been understandable for Furman to be outwardly disappointed in the NCAA Tournament selection committee for passing on them. The Paladins won a school-record 25 games, beat Villanova and Loyola-Chicago on the road in November and finished third in a Southern Conference ranked the 11th-strongest in the nation by Ken Pomeroy.
But Richey and his Furman players seemed genuinely excited about the opportunity of playing in the NIT and playing a program like Wichita State.
“We know they’re going to be really talented and they have a lot of great players,” Furman junior Jordan Lyons said. “Gregg Marshall is an outstanding coach. We respect them and know they’re a very good program, but we believe in each other and our talents. It’s definitely a game we expect to be able to come out victorious.”
Like many mid-majors on the rise, Furman has to go on the road in the nonconference to play in Quadrant One and Quadrant Two games. Not only is Furman excited to host Wichita State, but its fans are salivating over the chance of potentially meeting Clemson, the ACC school that has reportedly refused to play its mid-major neighbor 30 miles away, in the second round.
That might be the dream matchup for Furman, but its team realizes the caliber of team WSU has been the last seven weeks. The Shockers have won 11 of their past 14 games and looked like a NCAA tournament team at the AAC tournament, knocking off Temple and taking Cincinnati down to the final possession.
A win Wednesday would give Marshall his 500th career game as coach in his home state of South Carolina, where he was born in Greenwood, about a 70-minute trip to Greenville. He also has deep coaching ties in South Carolina, where he was the head coach at Winthrop from 1998-07 and spent eight years as an assistant at College of Charleston from 1988-96.
“It’s a big-time opportunity for us to be able to have a team like Wichita State to come in here and be able to play at Timmons,” Lyons said. “That’s amazing, that’s something we should cherish and we should be happy for and we should work our butts off for.”
Going off KenPom, Furman (56) is one of the best teams to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Paladins revolve around 6-foot-8, 215-pound center Matt Rafferty, who averages 17.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.1 blocks, while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.
Furman plays small around Rafferty and dots the perimeter with shooters. If Rafferty isn’t scoring inside, then Furman has four shooters on the floor. Furman has the 16th-highest three-point rate in the country.
But Furman’s team strength is actually its defense. It’s not quite at the efficiency level of Houston or Cincinnati, but it’s close and Furman ranks in the top-10 of steal rate with the No. 42 ranked KenPom defense. Richey acknowledged Furman doesn’t have the athletes that WSU is used to seeing in the American, but that doesn’t mean Furman still can’t get after it just as hard on the defensive end.
“Their league is a little different than what we see,” Richey said. “There’s a lot more pressures and denials, a little more athleticism. (Furman’s defense) will be a little different, but it’s not anything (Marshall) hasn’t seen before. It’s still going to come down to how hard do we play and how connected we are and how physical are we going to be with the size disadvantage we’re going to have.”
Furman’s rotation stretches to eight at the deepest and Rafferty, at 6-8 and 215, is the tallest and biggest player Furman has. It will be a chess match with how WSU goes about trying to exploit the size advantage of centers Jaime Echenique (6-11, 258) and Asbjorn Midtgaard (7-0, 268).
Rafferty also inujured his thumb in the Southern Conference Tournament last week, but played through it and given 10 days between games, said Monday “it is doing a lot better.”
Furman is expecting one of its toughest challenges of the season on Wednesday.
“Markis McDuffie is very, very talented and he’s 6-8 and plays like a guard,” Lyons said. “We watched film of them (Sunday) and looked at their personnel and they’re a really good team. They started kind of slow in the American, but won a lot of games here of late and really started to turn it on.”