The Final Season: Crossing Sabres

The Cavaliers will joust with the Furman Paladins in the first round of the tournament

The Paladin was always one of my favorite character classes in D&D. They combined a cleric with a knight. You could heal your friends and kill your enemies. Many Paladins favored maces, but I always wielded a two-handed sword. On Thursday morning, the Virginia Cavaliers will cross swords with the Furman Paladins. Just as both Cavaliers and Paladins rode horses and fought with swords, Virginia and Furman share some striking similarities. They do, however, differ from each other as strikingly as did a cavalier and a paladin.

Furman is difficult to scout because they do many different things. I watched their last two conference tournament games and saw one team, then I watched their early December contest with NC State and saw a different team, then I watched their December win over South Carolina and saw a third team - one that more resembled the team that played NC State. Is this difference in style a function of adaptation over time, or an adaptation to opponent? Correctly answering that question will be one of the tasks of Virginia's scouting brain trust.

Tony Bennett is well aware that the small conferences are full of players who can compete on an equal footing with ACC players and teams that can beat an ACC team. Been there, done that, vividly remember it. Furman is one of those teams, and they have a few of those players. The Paladins' best player is Jalen Slawson, a 5th-year senior who came back to take care of unfinished business after a buzzer-beating miracle shot by UT Chattanooga knocked them out of last year's tournament. Slawson is a 6-7, 215-pound forward and the Southern Conference Player of the Year. Dude can ball out and in the opinion of Super Analyst Brian Geisinger, is a legitimate NBA prospect.

Slawson wears #20 and can play inside or out. He was second on the team in scoring at 15.7 per game, and the team's best three-point shooter at 39.4% on just under three attempts per game. He gets to the line often (48.9% FTr) and makes them (76.7%). He led the team in rebounds, steals and blocks and was second in assists at 3.2 per game. Offensively he will generally start at the arc and slash from there, although he was the team's leading offensive rebounder, grabbing a shade under two per game. He's a tough cover with quickness, power, a good handle and sniper ability.

Furman's second best player is another 5th-year senior, SoCon scoring leader Mike Bothwell. The 6-3, 195-pound guard is another problem. He shoots the three in volume, and hits enough to make you guard him (33.8% on 4.2 attempts per game), but gets downhill with violence. He gets to the line almost as often as Slawson (47.5%) and is even deadlier when he gets there, at an 82.9% clip. Bothwell wears #3 and leads the team in minutes played at 33.7 mpg.

The third member of Furman's ACC-calibre Cerberos is sophomore point guard JP Pegues, who goes 6-1, 180 and wears #1. Pegues was second in minutes, third in scoring (12.0) and led the team in assists with 4.0 per game and a 2:1 A:TO ratio. Not a high-percentage shooter at 42.3/34.9/69.7, he's dangerous in transition and can get to the rim.

The fourth Paladin is 6-4, 200-pound junior guard Marcus Foster (#5), who also played all 34 games and averaged a shade under 30 minutes per. He was Furman's fourth double-digit scorer (10.6) and second on the team in rebounding and free throw percentage. He doesn't get to the line as often as Slawson or Bothwell, but hits 82.1% of them when he gets there. He is Furman's closest thing to a 3-point gunner, with 57% of his shots coming from out there and a respectable 36.4% accuracy.

The fifth starter is a 6-9, 215-pound junior Garrett Hien, who wears #13. Hien only plays about half the game and is perimeter-oriented. He shoots the three on 37.5% of his attempts and is second on the team at 36.6% accuracy. He's the worst free throw shooter in the rotation at just 50%.

Furman's key reserves are all relatively young. Ben VanderWal is a 6-7, 210-pound freshman who wears #4 and played in all 34 games. Other interior reserves are 6-6, 220-pound sophomore Tyrese Hughey (#15) who started some games early in the season, and 6-6, 235-pound sophomore Alex Williams (#24). All of them can play and do a good job of spelling the starters. The primary backcourt reserve is a familiar name: Carter Whitt. The former UVA prospect and Wake Forest point guard plays 12.8 minutes off the bench.


Rarely have I watched a team that looked so different from game to game in what they did. Normally you would watch video and come away saying, "Ok, they will do this and this and will try to do this to us," and you plan accordingly. But I watched Furman play three different styles and did not see enough games to come away with a clear idea of what to expect tomorrow. Bennett's staff will, of course, watch many more games than I did and with much greater expertise, so they likely have a better idea, but the Cavalier's leader knows preparing for the Paladins is a tough task. "They do a lot of good stuff. They'll challenge you in a lot of ways.... Seeing how they've executed offensively and defensively, it catches your attention. They know what they're doing."

When Furman has the ball, "they're going to make you guard with cuts and movement and clever stuff," Bennett knows. In the two conference tournament games, they relied primarily on a 5-out set with handoffs and ball screens around the arc, and cuts into the lane. The color commentator told us that they want to make it a track meet, and they did push the ball up like many of Virginia's ACC opponents try to do.

In the games against NC State and South Carolina, however, the Paladins used more 4-around-1 sets, and some that look like Bennett's Sides with a post operating on either side of the lane. In the 4-around set, the big would post, but primarily the intent was the same as the 5-out: get guys downhill or pop out and shoot the three. In those games, the announcer told us that the Paladins would want to slow it down, and they did play at a more deliberate pace. They still looked for the break, but were more content to grind it in the halfcourt.

Whether the different approaches to offense in the two sets of games was a function of changing strategy over time, or was a strategic response to different types of opponents, will be the determinant of what the Hoos can expect. Has Furman become a fast team that will try to track meet the game, or will they try to slow the game? Will they run 5-out or put one or two players in the post?

My guess is that we will see Furman content to play the half court game, taking opportunities to break but not forcing it, because their coach, Bob Richey, is smart enough to know that your chances of successfully forcing transition against Virginia are slimmer than a fencing foil. He's got good stuff to run and can put five threats on the floor at all times, so be patient and run the stuff. I am further guessing we will see the 5-out set, because his posts are not going to feast against Virginia's post defense, and Richey surely knows that spreading the Packline out makes it harder for Virginia to cover the gaps, complicates help rotations, and gives you the best chance of finding driving lanes and open looks while the defense is scrambling.

The primary 5, Hien, is a pick-and-pop threat and Virginia's defenders will have to come out on him. It's a matchup where Ben Vander Plas would have been perfect, but alas, he is but a cheerleader in this one. It is not a game ideally suited to Francisco Caffaro. Kadin Shedrick is more mobile, but defensively the Cavaliers will match up best against the Paladins with their two-forward lineup of Jayden Gardner and Ryan Dunn. I like Dunn's length, athletic ability and defensive instincts against Slawson, but putting a rookie against the wily crafty veteran has risks. Dunn makes mistakes sometimes, and Slawson will put constant pressure on him. If not Dunn, Gardner will take Slawson and pit experience against experience.

The backcourt pairings are more obvious. Kihei Clark will hound Pegues while Reece Beekman copes with Bothwell. Handling ball screens and dribble handoffs will be a challenge, because Hien is a pick-and-pop threat and Slawson will pop or roll as a screener. Help and rotations will be tough because of how they spread the floor and everybody will shoot the three. Stylistically, think of Notre Dame.

It is tricky to forecast what Furman will do when Virginia has the ball, as they showed so many different styles on video. In the two tournament games they showed a pretty vanilla man-to-man, slipping through screens or occasionally switching. They swarmed to the ball in the paint and went hard to the defensive boards. Against NC State and South Carolina, however, they hedged ball screens. Look for Virginia to probe the ball screen defense early to tease out the strategy for this game.

We will probably see a heavy reliance on Sides, especially early. The offense worked very well in Virginia's four games leading up to the ACC Championship Game, and Furman can't employ Duke's strategy of forcing the cutters to curl into the middle and swallow them up like a forest of ents with an orc. The Hoos should be able to get into the lane and do damage. Dan Siegel of Streaking the Lawn pointed out that Furman is "Shot Quality's 236th team in the country in defending the catch and shoot three point shot." When Virginia is in Sides, look for that little flare screen on the weak side and the kickout pass from the cutter. With Furman's tendency to collapse on the ball, there could be a lot of opportunities there.

Siegel's insight also applies to the three-man motion offense. Without Vander Plas, I'm not sure how much Tony will want to run the set, but it will give a lot of screen-and-roll options for Shedrick, and with McKneely and Franklin on the floor, lots of opportunities for those catch-and-shoot threes. Not sure we will see much of that set because Dunn is not the three-point shooter you want as a floor spacer, and not the offensive creator you want running the motion in the middle. I would think you will only see that set when McKneely is in the game and Dunn is not.

What the Cavaliers will have to be prepared for, however, and what I want you to look for early, is for Furman to throw a fullcourt press at Virginia. They picked up full court in man-to-man or played a full court zone frequently in every game I watched, and they did it pretty well. If they've watched enough video of Virginia - and we have to assume they have - they will have seen how shaky the Cavaliers can be against a backcourt trap. With the tendency of Bennett's teams to come out tight and tentative in first round games, be surprised if the Paladins don't throw this at the Cavaliers from the jump. Get a couple of steals and easy baskets early, and the Hoos will be like gladiators in the Colosseum.


Furman is one of the most popular upset picks, and not without reason.

Coastal Carolina.







Ok? The only name on that list that didn't make you cringe was Hampton. Every other one of those teams either beat Virginia or had the Hoos on the ropes at one point or another. It was a miracle that we beat UNC-Wilmington. The first round is not Virginia's best round. The Cavaliers have almost without exception looked tense and uncertain at the start of these games. Desperation has been palpable at one point or another in every one.

Expect a game that looks an awful lot like an ACC game. Think Notre Dame or Wake Forest. Furman doesn't have the shooters of Notre Dame but they play a similar style on offense. They probably defend better. They are capable of getting it going against Virginia and it doesn't have to be some weird parallel universe for them to win, but if the Cavaliers attack the basket and play hard-nosed, inside-out offense and normal Virginia defense, they will win the game by multiple possessions. Pay attention to the first few offensive possessions for Virginia. If we see paint touches in all of them and shots either at the rim or off kickouts from the paint, expect a good game. If we see a few perimeter passes then a three-point shot - an open look - hunker down for a long afternoon and have that tub of ice cream ready.

Give the points. Last I saw, Virginia was a six-point favorite. I feel good about this one. I think we're going to see Virginia come out hungry and aggressive, giving proper respect to the opponent, but not fear.

Give the points.

Seattle Hoo
March 15, 2023