ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson were thrown together five years ago in the same dorm as freshmen at Furman, essentially forced to be roommates as well as teammates.
They’ve fought, made up and gotten tighter and tighter through every experience — on and off the court. They’re lifelong friends, so close they’ve already vowed to be the best man at each other’s eventual weddings.
Now, they are beginning their greatest adventure: Furman is in the NCAA Tournament for the first since 1980 and preparing for a first-round game against Virginia in the South Region.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” Bothwell said. “We probably argue as teammates more than anyone else on the team, but that just comes from love and wanting to see each other get to our best and we feel comfortable getting on each other. I think it’s a healthy relationship.”
It’s arguably the most pivotal one for the 13th-seeded Paladins (27-7), the Southern Conference champions who have won 14 of their last 15 games heading into Thursday’s matchup against the fourth-seeded Cavaliers (25-7).
“I don’t know what clicked, but something did click,” Slawson said. “It was like an instant brotherhood.”
Knowing they were going to be paired together, they started calling each other months before they got to campus in 2018 and eventually got on FaceTime.
“What are you bringing to the room?”
“What do we even need?”
“Let’s get this.”
“Let’s get that.”
Way beyond simple decorating ideas, they bonded over school, video games, basketball and life — the latter two essentially one in the same for the dynamic duo. And they really started to gel while playing side by side for half a decade.
Chemistry. Connection. Cohesion. It’s obvious watching these two carry Furman over the last two months, and really over the last two years.
Slawson, a 6-foot-7 forward from Summerville, South Carolina, was the conference player of the year, averaging 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Bothwell, a 6-3 guard from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, leads the team at 18 points a game to go along with 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Together, they give Furman a chance against the 2019 NCAA champions.
They could have transferred after settling for small roles early in their college careers. They could have taken offers to play at higher-profile schools after becoming two of the better players in the Southern Conference. They could have jumped at a chance to play professionally overseas after going through the NBA Draft process last summer.
Instead, they stuck it out. They’ve remained roommates and besties through two dorm swaps, various summer housing spots and three off-campus apartments.
“You can’t take these moments back,” Bothwell said. “Being on a team with a bunch of guys that I love, you can’t change that for the world. … This is just a little icing on the cake, a little cherry on top.
“It’s going to get even sweeter if we continue to play the way we’ve been playing.”
Furman hasn’t lost in more than a month and so far has dropped just two games in 2023. Coach Bob Richey’s team is one of nine in the country to notch at least 22 wins in six of the last seven seasons.
The Paladins looked like they would make the NCAA Tournament last year. But they lost to Chattanooga on 35-foot heave at the buzzer in the league title game, a gut-wrenching ending that provided a year’s worth of motivation.
In that second, Bothwell and Slawson knew they would be back for another shot — together.
“This is what we wanted,” Slawson said. “It’s what we expected, honestly. It’s unfortunate that it’s coming to end. It’ll be different, but he’ll always be one call away and we’ll see each other regularly.
“We’re never going to be too far away from each other.”