A week after beating one Final Four team in Loyola, Jordan Lyons and the Furman Paladins stepped onto The Pavilion on Villanova’s campus to face another. It had been a good week for Lyons. He scored 15 points in the 60–58 upset over Loyola, and then scored 54 points and tied an NCAA record with 15 threes in a win against Division II North Greenville. Now, despite taking on the eighth-ranked team country, Lyons felt no pressure.
“We knew that the world wasn’t going to think we could go up there and win that game,” says the 5’11” junior guard. “We just went up there and played free. We were all free. Nobody was playing tight. We all believed in each other.”
Belief is a word you hear often around the Furman program; in fact, it's one of its core tenets. Coach Bob Richey preaches to his players the idea of collective belief. Believe in one another. Believe in everyone. “When you got a whole program that believe in each other, we’re confident we can go in any arena and get the job done.”
Lyons, who hit two free throws to tie the Villanova game in the final minute, led the team with 17 points in the 76–68 overtime stunner. It’s all part of a Furman team that has been experiencing new highs all season, heading into a matchup against LSU on Friday night still undefeated, ranked for the first time ever and looking to make the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. It’s been the leadership of Lyons that’s helped fueled the team, a leadership that has been ingrained in the program’s DNA.
“It all goes back to off the court,” Richey says. “And it’s starting to bleed in on the court.”
Bob Richey was a business major at North Greenville University, and he is, as he puts it, “obsessed” with the subject. He follows companies, trying to glean any insight he can. The 35-year-old studies successful sports programs, looking for an edge. He thinks he has the crucial insight, the one that has taken Furman from a down-and-out program to this year’s mid-major darling. It’s people.
O.K., yes, this is one of those easy insights that everyone should know, and every coach in the country, to varying degrees, tries to develop their athletes. How many times have you heard the phrase, “We develop young men at our school” bandied about at tournament time? Too many to count. And yes, Richey says the same thing, but his process is a bit more unusual than others.
Every member of the team has a mentor from the larger Greenville, S.C., business community. Every member was recently fitted with tailor-made suits. Richey has a leadership council of a few players, where they read books and articles, learn about leadership principles. “It’s intense,” Richey admits. “But our philosophy is, if we can take an 18-year-old person and build a man, that player is going to develop as a byproduct.”
No player is more emblematic of this “FURther the Man” program than Lyons. A two-star recruit out of McIntosh High in Peachtree City, Ga., Lyons played a decent amount as a freshman and sophomore, but was a behind a strong group of seniors. Four seniors graduated after last season, leaving Lyons with a chance at a major role.
He took it seriously, cutting his body fat down to 10% and losing 10 pounds. That extra weight off has helped him become more explosive and faster on the court. It led to that 54-point explosion (“An awesome night,” he says), but also the 29 points against Western Carolina or the 4-of-10 shooting from three against UNC Asheville.
“It comes down to all the work that’s been done,” he says. “I’ve got a really good support system that’s always willing to help me get better in any way possible. Coach Richey has put in countless hours with me. I want to be great at this game.”
Lyons’s development as a player is matched by his development as a person. Before calling a reporter, he texted beforehand to confirm, referring to his interviewer by “Mr.,” which is unusual for any college student, let alone a college basketball player. When told of this, Richey just chuckled. But then he got serious. “His courage is impressive,” Richey says. “He’s never afraid of the moment. He wants the burden on his back. Against Loyola, he missed eight or nine shots, and he still hit a three to tie it. He never loses belief in himself. He’s got a magnetic personality. He’s got innate leadership qualities. His parents are phenomenal people. They raised him right.”
Lyons is the leading scorer (18.2 ppg) on the team, but he’s not alone. Matt Rafferty, a 6’8” senior forward, is averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds, and leads the team with 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals. Clay Mounce, a 6’7” sophomore, is averaging more than twice the minutes per game as last season. They’re deep and can shoot.
And, for the first time in awhile, they’ve got the school behind them. Furman, an academic-minded campus of 2,700 (which has Swan Lake in the middle of the property and its own golf course) hasn’t been known for its rabid fandom. But the Paladins’ season thus far has changed that. After the Villanova win, students packed Timmons Arena awaiting their return. Before last week’s game against Charleston Southern, its first home game as a ranked team, the facility staff had to find extra seats in the student section to accommodate everyone.
And that, for Lyons, is at the heart of this season. “It’s been a long time for Furman fans,” he says. “There’s been a lot of dark years. But it’s starting to turn around. It’s neat to see the school and the institution and the community start to really behind it. It’s awesome to do something bigger than ourselves.”
With this rousing start to the season underway, the rest of the year will be bigger than just Lyons and Richey. It’ll be about leadership books and tailor-made suits, and a school learning just how fun it is to have a major college basketball program on its campus.