ORLANDO, Fla. — Bob Richey has guided the Furman men's basketball team this season with a simple formula: Joy plus urgency.
It’s equaled a trip to the NCAA Tournament, one that narrowly escaped his team last year, when it lost on a buzzer-beater in the Southern Conference championship game. Now, with the 13th-seeded Paladins set to face fourth-seeded Virginia, Richey isn’t altering that approach.
The path to beating UVa, he said Wednesday, is for his team to enjoy the experience, play to win, and be itself.
“You have to have identity,” Richey said. “I think when you get into big games, what's the best way to win them? Get to your identity.”
For Furman (27-7), that means playing fast, putting it at odds with Virginia’s decidedly more deliberate approach.
“It’s just a contrast of different styles,” UVa guard Reece Beekman said. “We want to get back. They want to push it.”
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It’s important to understand how Virginia (25-7) achieves its notoriously slow pace of play. It starts on the defensive end, where the Cavaliers frequently force opponents to use most, if not all, of the shot clock. And it’s accentuated by an offensive approach that is deliberate, relying on screens and encouraging patience, passing up good shots for great ones.
Add that up, and UVa ranks 360 out of 363 Division I teams in adjusted tempo, per the basketball analytics website Kenpom.com, averaging 61.5 possessions per game.
“The best thing for us to be able to do that is when we get stops to just not walk the ball up the floor,” Furman guard Mike Bothwell said. “Even when they score, get it out quick. They're very good at controlling their tempo, so it's going to be hard for us to do it. But I think we have to be able to control what we can control, and that is getting it out quick, out of the net, and just running our break when we get a stop. It's just going to be a battle of two contrasting things.”
The Paladins play on the other end of the spectrum, 236 spots ahead of Virginia in terms of possessions per game. They push the ball up the court on made or missed shots by their opponent and, of course, off steals. They’re fast — but not wild.
While they take shots early in possessions, they don’t rush to take bad shots. They work quickly and aggressively to get good ones.
“They'll get down the floor so fast, after a make, after a miss, and they're efficient,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I don't know if there's any teams in the ACC quite like them. That's what makes that always challenging and intriguing.”
To slow down fast-paced Furman, Virginia will need to make shots, allowing time for its defense to get back and set, and it will need to limit turnovers, something it failed to do in its ACC championship game loss to Duke. Virginia turned it over 12 times, leading to 13 points for the Blue Devils in their 59-49 win.
“Last game we turned the ball over a lot. It was really uncharacteristic for us,” guard Armaan Franklin said. “We saw the outcome of that game.”
Furman is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980. Bothwell and fellow fifth-year senior Jalen Slawson came back to the Paladins for the chance to get into the NCAAs. They used the heartbreak of Chattanooga’s 35-foot heave at the buzzer to push them to this point.
“These are the teams that we love to play,” Slawson said. “Mid-major schools live for games like this, and we only get a few of them a year. Mike and I being fifth-year guys, we want to go play the best of the best.”
Virginia hasn’t advanced in an NCAA Tournament since 2019, when it won six straight games to claim the national championship. The next year, there was no tournament due to the pandemic. In 2021, in the Indianapolis bubble, it lost in the first round to Ohio. Last season, it played in the NIT.
The last time it played in Orlando, in 2017, it beat North Carolina Wilmington in the first round, before getting drilled by Florida two days later.
“Not a lot has changed in this tournament,” said Bennett, who is 13-7 in his nine NCAA appearances with Virginia. “You'd better be ready."
And you better be yourself.