Head coach Niko Medved heads into his third season at the helm of the Furman basketball program, leading the Paladins into action on Friday night in its exhibition opener against Division II North Greenville, which is just three miles north of the Furman campus.
Plenty of excitement surrounds the 2015-16 season for the Paladins, who are coming off one of the remarkable Southern Conference tournament runs in modern history of the tournament, as the Paladins entered the league tournament with just eight regular season wins and finished overall in the Southern Conference, winning just five league games.
However, beginning with the final week of the regular season and including the Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins knocked off teams in the league that finished No. 2, 3 and 4 in the league standings, and lost to eventual league tournament champion Wofford by a combined five points in a pair of matchups, with one of those matchups coming in the league title game, as the Paladins would drop a 67-64 decision to the Terriers.
Furman would open the SoCon Tournament with a 72-57 win over The Citadel before posting wins over No. 2 seed Chattanooga (69-67) and Mercer (53-49). The Paladins also posted a late-season win over Western Carolina (52-49) prior to heading to Asheville.
Despite winning just 11 games, the Paladins look primed to make a run at a upper echelon finish in the Southern Conference this season, and the Paladins could perhaps garner their first opening round bye since the 2006-07 and only the second opening round bye since the 1993-94 season--the same season in which the divisional seeding process was implemented.
Though the SoCon is no longer split in divisions, the Paladins have failed to garner a bye in each of the past two Southern Conference Tournaments, and last season, the top six finishers in the league table were able to avoid an opening day matchup in the tournament.
It's the most optimism that has surrounded the Paladins since the 2010-11 season, when the Paladins finished the season with 22 wins and made a postseason appearance, which saw the Paladins compete in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, or CIT.
The well of success has been pretty much dry for the past three-plus decades, with Furman having not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since the 1979-80 season. During the past 35 years, the Paladins have had lean success, tying for a regular-season Southern Conference title in 1990-91 and making an NIT appearance that same season. Furman has finished above .500 in the SoCon just seven times in the past 34 seasons, with the last being a 12-6 mark back during that 2010-11 campaign.
The good news is Furman returns all five starters to the fold this season, however, the Paladins will be without preseason All-SoCon selection Stephen Croone (17.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG) until December, who is out with a minor injury. Croone will most certainly be a candidate for SoCon Player of the Year honors when he returns this winter, and he is the SoCon's leading returning scorer.
Croone has had plenty of standout games during his Paladin career, but during those previous seasons, Croone had mostly been regarded as just a one-man show on a team that struggled. Stop Croone, it was assumed by most that the Paladins would be stopped.
He will enter his senior season with 1,373 points, which ranks as the SoCon's career-active scoring leader entering his senior campaign. Croone is more than just a pure scorer, however, as his importance to the Paladins extends beyond what he does on the offensive end of the floor.
One of the games that personifies Croone's importance to Medved's Paladins the most is his performance in the Southern Conference semifinals against Mercer in the SoCon semifinals last season, as he posted 17 points and a career-high 14 boards, in helping the Paladins to the memorable win.
Croone has also improved as an outside shooter, as he led the Paladins by connecting on 55 triples last season, and he finished the campaign with a 34.8% shooting percentage.
The senior from Atlanta also was key on the defensive end of the floor, as he completed the campaign by leading the club in steals (55) as well as dishing out 80 assists, which ranked second on the club.
In his junior season of 2014-15, Croone would find himself in double figures in 29 of the 31 games he saw action in last season, including all four games in the Southern Conference Tournament. Western Carolina and East Tennessee State--both on the road--which would hold the talented guard from the outskirts of Atlanta to less than double figures last season. Both saw the Paladins fall in defeat.
Croone bested the 20-point mark in nine games last season for the Paladins, and scored 30 or more points twice, with a season-high 33 points coming in the Paladins' SoCon-opening win over Samford. Croone had 31 points in an overtime loss to Chattanooga, which marked the other time in which he found himself besting the 30-point plateau a second time in SoCon play.
Other than the minor injury to Croone, the Paladins are in better shape injury-wise than they have been in the past few years, including having Kris Acox (7.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG) back in the fold, which is vital for the Paladins. Acox, who missed most of the 2013-14 season with a broken foot and then was sidelined early in the championship game of last year's title game after breaking his foot again. Acox finished the season on a tear for the Paladins, and he led the Southern Conference with 7.5 RPG last season.
Acox, who garnered All-SoCon Tournament honors, was a major reason why the Paladins were able to make the run they did last season, and once the calendar turned to February, it seemed Acox raised his game to another level. He finished the season with six double-doubles, including a 12-point, 17-rebound effort in a late-season win over Western Carolina at Timmons Arena, as well as posting a 14-point, 17-board performance in a game at East Tennessee State last Valentine's Day.
In a tournament win over No. 2 seed Chattanooga, Acox posted nine points and nine boards. His rebound-dunk in the waning moments of the semifinal win over Mercer electrified the crowd, and saw the momentum shift firmly in the favor of the Paladins following that emphatic athletic display. Acox has also added a new element to his game, which is an outside shot, making him an even more versatile player this season. The Reykjavík,Iceland product should contend for All-SoCon accolades this season, and will be one of the most athletic big men in the league.
The one thing about the 2015-16 Paladin team is the depth it will boasts this season, and Acox won't be alone under the basket this season, with a good mix of veterans and the infusion of a trio of new talents who will see their fair share of action this season.
Acox's veteran leadershup will be joined by senior forward Kendrec Ferrara (7.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG) returns to the fold, and has become a more complete player each season as his Paladin career has progressed. One of the games that personified that improvement last season was his performance in a home loss to Chattanooga, as Ferrara posted nine points, blocked seven shots and brought down five rebounds in the 74-71 overtime loss.
Ferrara has that added element of being an outside threat, as well, having connected on 15 triples last season. Ferrara led the Paladins on the defensive end, with 15 blocks last season.
Also returning underneath the basketball will be 6-7 sophomore forward Geoff Beans (7.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who last season played more like a displaced big man, and was known for his shooting touch rather than his assertiveness around the hoop.
However, expect that to change during the off-season, as Medved will hope to get the Toledo, OH product developed more around the basket to create more depth underneath should the unfortunate situation of injury present itself once again this season, as it did last season. With Beans having further developed this aspect of his game, expect him to be even more versatile this season.
It was evident from the outset of the start of Geoff Beans' career, which came four games into the season in a game at Liberty, that the newcomer from the midwest.
Beans came into his first game against Liberty and made good on all his three-point field goals, and it would set in motion a strong first season in Greenville for the Toledo, OH native. Beans would go on to finish second on the Paladin roster in three-pointers made last season, posting 46 triples last season. He also missed only eight foul shots (45-of-53) from the free throw line last season. Beans was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last season.
Newcomers Matt Rafferty (6-8, 215 lbs, Hinsdale, Ill) and Isaiah Watkins (Duquesne Transfer/sat out 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer requirements/6-8, 220 lbs) are expected to compete for solid game action this season, and perhaps could earn starting time.
Rafferty is a hard worker, and he is the kind of player that is very old-school in that he is physical and a hard worker. He is a very fundamental player in the paint, with good post moves and is efficient around the basket.
Watkins was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, and saw action in 16 games as a freshman at Duquesne, and was affected by a knee injury. He averaged 1.4 PPG and 1.4 RPG in his time at Duquesne. He will add another rebounding presence much in the same fashion as Acox. Local product Jalen Williams (Greenville, S.C.) out of Wade Hampton High School will redshirt this season, but could be a future star for the Paladin basketball program.
While Croone will highlight the returnees in the backcourt this season, there is certainly plenty of talent to be excited about, both returning veterans and newcomers. One of those players is 2014-15 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Devin Sibley (10.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG).
With Sibley winning the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year award, he became the first Paladin player to accomplish that feat since Quan Prowell claimed claimed the top freshman honor in the 2004-05 campaign. Sibley also contributed 40 assissts and 24 steals in his first season as a Paladin.
In back-to-back games on the road in mid-January last season, Sibley would score 21 and 25 points for the Paladins, setting or tying a career-high on both occasions. Then, on Jan. 29 in a loss at East Tennessee State, Sibley would set a new career-high with 29 points. As a threat from beyond the arc last season, Sibley finished the 2014-15 season ranking third on the club with 36 triples on the season, shooting a team-best 37.1% (36-of-97) from downtown last season.
Furman's most impressive all-around player other than Croone might be another Peach State native, in rising sophomore Daniel Fowler (7.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG), who enters the season as Furman's top on-the-ball defender, as well as looking to be more aggressive as a scoring threat this season.
Like Acox, an improved aspect of Fowler's game is his perimeter shooting. Among the players that participated in the scimmage last week, Fowler was most impressive in what he did on both ends of the floor. He is no longer tentative when taking the ball to the basket, and seemed to be playing with much more confidence.
It was easy to see him beginning to emerge from his shell during the Southern Conference Tournament last season, especially in the final against Wofford, as his dunk electrified the Paladins and gave them momentum, as the half wound down.
The 6-4 guard/small forward was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last season, and was the only one of the Paladin players to start all 33 games for the Paladins last season.
Fowler led the Paladins with 83 assists last season, and might have been the team's top defender, as he routinely drew the opponents' top scorer last season. He enjoyed several strong offensive performances last season, including a 13-point performance in an early game and single-digit loss at Minnesota just before Christmas. Fowler's 38 steals were second on the team.
He finished the season connecting on 22-of-64 from beyond the arc, which was good enough for 32.4% from long range. Fowler will need to improve his shooting from the charity stripe, which saw him shoot just 62.2% (46-for-74) from the stripe last season.
Senior Larry Wideman (3.5 PPG, 1.7 RPG) could be the x-factor in the backcourt for the Paladins in the coming season, and he looked impressive in last week's scrimmage as well, and he will need to be impressive, as he will be competing for playing time with the Paladin newcomers, who have been introduced into the fold in the backcourt for Furman.
The Loris, S.C., native stepped up and had some solid performances for the Paladins last season, notably in wins over Appalachian State and East Tennessee State.
In those two games, he put up 12 in a win over Appalachian State, while posting a season-high 14 points in a 59-55 win over East Tennessee State at Timmons Arena late in January. In the win over the Bucs, Wideman went 5-for-6 from the field and a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point range.
Rounding out the returnees in the backcourt is sophomore John Davis III (3.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG), who is questionable for the scrimmage with a concussion.
Davis III scored a career-high 20 points in the regular-season finale against Wofford, starting in place of the injured Stephen Croone. The Paladins went toe-to-toe with the eventual SoCon champs even without the presence of Croone. Like Fowler, Davis III was able to assert himself and gain confidence as a scoring threat down the stretch. He has the potential to be one of the team's best perimeter threats in 2015-16.
With Croone not available for action, keep an eye on Jonathan Jean (Tampa, FL)--a crafty, quick young guard that is Croone's heir apparent in the backcourt.
The 5-11, 170-lb jet-quick guard showed the ability to make good decisions in the open floor, and also the ability to create his own shot off the dribble. He could also be another perimeter threat in the backcourt, as Jean is far from what some might call a game manager. He can both score and create.
Another key to Furman's success this coming season might be local product Andrew Brown (Greenville, S.C.) out of Travelers Rest High School. The 6-4 guard averaged 16.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG and 3.7 APG in his senior season, leading the Devildogs to a 21-5 season and was ranked as one of the Top 10 seniors in the state of South Carolina last season.
While Chattanooga is the class of the Southern Conference, Furman is certainly good enough to compete for a top four finish in the league this season and the program could be headed towards a sustainable future as a Southern Conference basketball power. It's been a long time since one could utter those words in a sentence when referring to Furman basketball.
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE CRUSADERS:
The Crusaders enter the contest with just one returning starter from a year ago under the direction of head coach Chad Lister, who is his 14th year at the helm of the Crusaders' basketball program.
The Crusaders are now members of Conference Carolinas, and for the first decade as head coach, the Crusaders were an NCAA Division II Independent. Lister, who graduated from Furman in 1995, has helped rebuild the NGU basketball program, and led the Crusaders to a program-record tying 22 wins in 2014-15. He has led the Crusaders to 96 wins over the past six wins.
Gone from the mix are four starters, with the lone returning starter being Korval McElroy (12.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG), who returns in the backcourt after completing the season second on the team in scoring last season, and was a big part of what was a 22-10 campaign for the Crusaders. McElroy led the team with 130 assists last season.
The Crusaders must replace double-digit scorers, Spencer Reaves (16.8 PPG), LaShawn Alexander (11.6 PPG), Micah Parker (11.6 PPG) and Phillip Brown (11.2 PPG) off last year's club. That led Lister to bring in a large recruiting class, which will see their first collegiate action tonight.
Joining McElroy off last season's 22-win club are 6-2 sophomore guard Syverio Jones (1.0 PPG, 0.3 RPG), 6-7 junior forward Tommy Wade (3.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG), 6-3 sophomore guard Matt Moore (0.8 PPG, 0.6 RPG), 6-8 junior forward Jai Jencks (3.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG) and 6-5 junior forward Troy Blyden (3.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG).
The talented recruiting class includes a pair of transfers that should see major action this season, in Miguel Cartenga-Reyes and Kriston Beasley. Cartenga-Reyes, who is a 6-1 guard, comes to NGU from George Washington, helping the George Washington Colonials to an NCAA appearance a couple of years ago. Cartenga Reyes spent the 2014-15 season at the College of Central Florida prior to joining the NGU program. He will be a junior this season.
Beasley played two seasons for Wallace State Community College. The 6-4 junior forward is a good athlete, averaging 11 PPG and was named second-team all-region in his sophomore season at Wallace State CC.
Another newcomer of significance for the Crusaders is 6-3 guard Daniel Burchette, who is out of North Buncombe High School, where he played for former Western Carolina Catamount Joey Bryson. Burchette averaged 22.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.2 SPG and 2.8 APG as a senior.
Series With The Crusaders:
—The Paladins and Crusaders have met only once in a regular-season game, which occurred during the 2010-11 season. The Paladins, which would go on to win 22 games that particular season, posted a 72-54 win over Lister's Crusaders on that particular night, which was the season opener for Furman, but counted as only an exhibition for the Division II Crusaders. In each of the past two seasons, the Paladins faced the Crusaders in preseason action, posting an 85-61 win in 2013 and a narrow 64-60 win last season.
Probable Starting Five For Furman
Stay tuned for Mid-Major Madness for a complete recap of the game, including quotes from head coach Niko Medved.