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Hail, Furman, a tiny college that excels on and off the basketball court

Furman University became the first-day darlings of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament when the 15th-seeded Paladins beat No.2 University of Virginia on a last-second shot in the Southern Regional’s first round.

But, by another measure, academic performance, not only was the 67-65 score not a surprise, it was predictable. They’re the favorite to make and win the Final Four.

Each year since 2006, Inside Higher Ed has done its own March Madness brackets, based all 48 teams’ performance on the NCAA’s own Academic Progress Rate. It calculates a team’s academic success by measuring every college athlete receiving an academic scholarship using a point system that credits staying in school and being academically eligible. (Inside Higher Ed calls it an imperfect metric since it excludes athletes who leave in good academic standing, so universities whose players tend to turn pro early still do well.)

In head-to-head games, Inside Higher Ed uses a school’s six-year graduation rate for athletes to determine the winner.

Furman is a 2,500-student private school in Greenville, South Carolina, founded 197 years ago and named after Baptist leader Richard Furman. The win on Thursday was the school’s first in the tournament in 45 years for the Paladins, named after a knight in the court of King Charlemagne (not after the lead role in the 1950s TV Western “Have Gun Will Travel”).

Las Vegas oddsmakers give Furman  a 0.2% chance of winning the tournament. But, with a perfect 1,000 point rating on the Academic Progress Rate,  it will go on to win the next four games and then face — and beat — Northwestern in the final game in Houston on April 3 using Inside Higher Ed’s bracketology. In actual play, the Northwestern Wildcats, also defying odds, beat Boise State on Thursday in the first round of regional play in Sacramento.

The Paladins, in fact, were bounced from the NCAA tournament on Monday as they lost 75-52 against San Diego State.