As a University of Minnesota graduate and St. Paul native, Niko Medved lived a dream when he was promoted to assistant coach with the Gophers a decade ago.
The Gophers’ 2006-07 season was a tumultuous one, beginning with the firing of Dan Monson and ending with the rest of his staff’s departure.
But Medved learned a lot about handling adversity in his one season with the Gophers. It’s something he experienced again while running his own Division I program at Furman. In his first two seasons as head coach in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Paladins won a total of 20 games. Furman, located in Greenville, S.C., kept improving each season, though.
Now the Paladins already are 20-10, with goals of making their first NCAA tournament since 1980. They haven’t been to the NIT since 1991.
“It was tough rebuilding,” said Medved, a Roseville High School graduate. “We kind of knew what was going to have to be redone. Our second year there, we recruited this group who were freshmen at the time. Now they’re juniors.”
That group won only 11 games as freshmen, but they lost in the Southern Conference tournament championship game — only two baskets away from an NCAA bid. The Paladins made a big jump last year with 19 wins, including a victory in the College Basketball Invitational, the program’s first postseason win since 1974.
Signs of another major step were apparent. Early in Furman’s 10-game winning streak this season, which helped the team take over the conference lead, Medved received a contract extension through 2022. At 43, he is becoming a hot name and arguably a candidate for midmajor coach of the year.
“It’s been fun to see the rejuvenation,” Medved said, “and the guys getting it together and becoming a contender. The league is tough. This is as good as the league has been since I’ve been here. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.”
Wednesday, Furman lost 93-81 in overtime at East Tennessee State, a loss that might keep it from winning the program’s first Southern title in 26 years. But the Paladins’ biggest goal has always been to win the conference tournament and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
If they got into March Madness, anything could happen. Furman doesn’t have much size — the Paladins’ tallest player in their rotation is 6-foot-7 — but nearly everyone who steps on the court is a three-point shooting threat. Six players have attempted at least 79 threes this season, and Furman shoots 39.2 percent from the beyond the arc as a team.
One day soon, Medved hopes to start up a recruiting pipeline for Minnesota kids again. Former Grand Rapids standout Eric Webb still holds the Paladins’ career three-point shooting mark (2003-07). Jadee Jones, Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones’ older brother and a former Hopkins star, played there from 2005 to ’07.
As a former manager for Clem Haskins’ Gophers teams in the late 1990s, Medved is glad to see his alma mater back on track with Richard Pitino likely making his first NCAA tournament this year. If all goes Furman’s way in the next month, Medved could be joining the U in the Big Dance.
“There’s still so many scenarios that could play out,” he said. “We just hope to win the conference tournament championship. That would be a huge feat for us. That’s the goal.”
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Purdue (23-5, 12-3)
Title run: The Boilermakers play two of their last three games on the road, but their fate is in their own hands for the Big Ten title. If they finish 3-0 at Michigan, vs. Indiana and at Northwestern, then crown ’em.
2. Wisconsin (22-6, 11-4)
Let down: Wisconsin and Purdue were supposed to be neck-and-neck in the conference championship race. But the Badgers put themselves behind, losing three of four, including 83-73 at Ohio State on Thursday.
3. Maryland (22-6, 10-5)
4. Minnesota (21-7, 9-6)
Red hot: The Gophers enter Saturday tied with Purdue for the longest win streak in the Big Ten at six straight games. When was the last time you remember the Gophers were this hot going into March?
5. Northwestern (20-8, 9-6)
6. Michigan (18-10, 8-7)
7. Michigan State (17-11, 9-6)
Bubble talk: The Spartans are too close to the bubble to feel safe that Tom Izzo’s near 20-year streak of NCAA tourneys stays alive. They would be much more comfortable by beating Wisconsin on Sunday.
8. Iowa (15-13, 7-8)
9. Penn State (14-14, 6-9)
10. Illinois (16-12, 4-9)
11. Ohio State (16-13, 6-10)
Matta milestone: The Buckeyes showed their potential Thursday. That gave Thad Matta the most games coached in program history (457). His team needs to play like that for him more often.
12. Nebraska (12-15, 6-9)
13. Indiana (15-13, 5-10)
14. Rutgers (13-16, 2-14)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Marcus Keene, guard, Central Michigan
It’s almost hard to believe a 5-foot-9, 175-pound guard can average 29.8 points per game and score 40 points or more six times in a season. Keene has the type of nifty ball-handling ability and deep-shooting range not probably seen at the midmajor level since Steph Curry was at Davidson.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
No. 12 Florida at No. 10 Kentucky, 2 p.m. Saturday (Ch. 4): The Gators are the hottest team among power conference schools with a nine-game winning streak. The Wildcats have won five in a row since a 22-point loss Feb. 4 at Florida. This game has Southeastern Conference title implications, with both teams tied at 13-2. Point guard De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, is a game-time decision because of a bruised right knee.
Sometimes when success happens so quickly, it’s hard to appreciate just how special the accomplishment is. Looking back at where the Gophers were a year ago at 2-13 in the Big Ten, you could see signs of progress in the future — but not this type of one-year turnaround. But that’s college basketball, where a few newcomers can make a huge difference, especially when the new guys and returning players all buy in and play together.