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2015-16 Preview: Stephen Croone Ready to Lead Furman to the NCAA Tournament

Stephen Croone has been a diamond in the rough for Neko Medved, can he lead the Paladins back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A diamond. It's the hardest structure on earth, and it's forged from pressure and heat. At 2,200 degrees fahrenheight and 725,000 lbs of pressure per square inch, a diamond is cut from the most extreme of conditions, according to livescience.com. The sparkle and gleam of the end product and perfection hardly describe a process associated with any hardship or flaw. But then again, we often don't look beyond the beauty of it to see the un-glamorous journey to get to the seemingly flawless end product.

Certainly, it is fitting that Stephen Croone would choose a program with a logo that had a diamond as its primary logo. Croone's journey hasn't been easy. He's playing under his second head coach in his career, battled injuries and experienced far more losses than wins in his career. However, he has stuck it out and a strange thing happened last March, things started to turn around for the Paladins, and Croone was at the center of the Furman success.

Now, heading into his senior season, Croone is on a crusade to return Furman to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980, and the Paladins might have the best opportunity to do that since at least 2011 and maybe before when you factor in there's no Davidson, Elon or College of Charleston in the SoCon to deal with. I had a chance to sit down with the rising senior this summer and I wanted to help tell his amazing story, as well as his team's unique journey.

CROONE'S JUNIOR SEASON (2014-15):

Heading into his senior season, Croone and the Paladins have some unfinished business.

After winning just eight regular-season game, Croone helped lead the Paladins on a magic carpet ride through the Southern Conference Tournament, as the Paladins posted wins over The Citadel (73-56), Chattanooga (69-67) and Mercer (52-49) to make a remarkable run to the Southern Conference title game. Facing Wofford in the title, the Paladins would come up just two points short of doing the unthinkable, dropping a 67-64 decision to the juggernaut Terriers.

It's a bit hard to imagine a team that finished the season with just 11 wins would transform their prospects as a league title contender entering the following season, however, that's exactly what Croone and the Paladins were able to do.

The title game with the Terriers proved to be a showcase of a pair of mid-major college basketball's top two guards, in Furman's Croone and Wofford's Karl Cochran--also two of college basketball's quickest. The title game between the two Upstate and Southern Conference rivals is one that will go down in the record books as one of the most exciting ever hosted by the city of Asheville.

The atmosphere was electric, as the packed U.S. Cellular Center was a realization of how exciting college basketball can be, and how that in a span of just a week, a team can go from playing in front of barely 1,000 fans on its home floor to playing in a title game with 6,000 filling the arena with noise in a packed gymnasium.

The 2015 Southern Conference title game was the classic David vs. Goliath story. Wofford was the established program, which was going for a fourth title in six seasons, while Furman entered as the David, having posted one of the more remarkable runs to the conference title game in league history after entering the weekend as the last overall seed.

But three wins later, and suddenly the Croone-led Paladins had grown up in a hurry--a far cry from the team that lost by 35-points on its home floor to open the season against College of Charleston without Croone, who suffered a minor concussion in practice just a few days prior to the season opener at Timmons Arena.

Though the Paladins ultimately lost that title game and finished with an 11-22 record, Croone's career got a lot more interesting in a 72-hour span. Furman will not enter the season as a team that will be taken lightly, and that's because Croone is no longer has to shoulder a majority of the scoring load. Furman has added pieces that developed throughout the regular-season.

Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Devin Sibley--the all-time leading scorer in Tennessee State Basketball history when he came to Furman out of Knoxville and Carn High School. Daniel Fowler, a small forward with incredible athleticism is a hard worker, that can score, but is most noted for his ability on the offensive glass and on the defensive end of the floor. Fowler was often the player that drew the assignment of defending the opposition's top player.

John Davis III is another impressive freshman, who posted 20 points in the regular-season finale loss at home to Wofford in the absence of Croone, as the Paladins lost by only two, 62-60.

Then there was the Geoff Beans story. A player that came in lauded by head coach Niko Medved as the one player that could score points in bunches with his ability to hit the outside shot. That would be evident from the outset, as Beans' first three shots of his collegiate career hit nothing but the bottom of the net from long-range in a game against Liberty. He posted 15 points in the title game loss to Wofford, which all came on threes.

The returnees--Kris Acox, Kendrec Ferrara and Larry Wideman all raised their respective games over the course of the season. Wideman, Croone's classmate and closest friend, came on down the stretch to help shoulder some of the scoring load, while Acox and Ferrara were at work in the paint getting rebounds and asserting themselves physically to give the Paladins a presence in the paint--something many felt Furman lacked coming into the season.

But it was Croone, who game-in and game-out over the past three seasons, has been the player most teams in the league have game-planned to stop. He was the player that the Paladins have relied on time-and-time again over the course of three seasons. He brings that kind of scoring potential to the floor each night.

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 in early February at Timmons Arena.

But the performance that probably best defines Stephen Croone is probably the performance he had in the Southern Conference semifinals against Mercer. In that game, Croone virtually willed the Paladins to a win, and it was his all-around efforts--not just in the scoring department--that secured Furman's place in the 2015 title game against Wofford in front of a national viewing audience. Croone would finish the game with 17 points, and a career-best 14 boards.

Croone finished the campaign garnering garnering First-Team All-SoCon by the league's coaches, while being named to the Second-Team All-SoCon squad by the league's media. He finished the season once again ranking among the SoCon's top five scorers once again, finishing fourth in the league in scoring (17.3 PPG) AND fifth in the league in steals (1.6 SPG).

Croone has the complete package as a player, but getting Furman to this point in its journey back to the top of the Southern Conference certainly hasn't been easy.

CROONE'S SOPHOMORE SEASON (2013-14):

Though the Paladins would win in Medved's first season as the head coach in Greenville, the new-old former Paladin head coach found out just how good Croone was from the outset.

It was a game in December of 2013 that Croone would really serve notice to the rest of the Southern Conference just how good the young, quick guard could be.

In what was one of the more remarkable performances in the recent memory of Furman basketball, Croone would become the first Paladin player to score 40 or more points in a basketball game in some 41 years, as he posted a 40 points to go with 11 boards, leading the Paladins to an 86-83 win over Liberty.

Though many around the Paladin program already knew of Croone's talent, the 40-point performance would certainly serve notice to the rest of the Southern Conference that Croone had to be accounted for. Check the highlights of Croone's outurst against Liberty in the link below.

Croone would complete the contest going 11-for-16 from the field, including going 5-for-7 from three-point range and 13-for-21 from the charity stripe.The win would put the Paladins' ledger at 5-6 for the season, but after the big performance, wins would be hard to come by for Croone and the Paladins, especially after getting into Southern Conference play.

Though the Paladins would struggle in 2013-14, Croone certainly would not, as he posted double figures in 29 out of 30 games for the Paladins during his sophomore season. Croone scored 26 or more points seven times during his second season suiting up for the Purple and White, including posting 30 points in a win over Gardner-Webb, while posting 27 points in losses to Western Carolina and Virginia Tech.

After a 2-0 start to his sophomore season, the Paladins would take on reigning Sweet Sixteen participant Florida Gulf Coast, and Croone would nearly help the Paladins to a memorable win,however, despite leading much of the contest, the Paladins would come up just short in what was a a hearbreaking 70-69 setback to the visiting Eagles.

Croone led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-16 from the field, including going a perfect 5-for-5 from the charity stripe and dished out four assists in the setback. Unfortunately for Croone and the Paladins, his long three-pointer from about 35-feet out on the right elbow hit the rim and bounced out as the buzzer sounded, and the Paladins missed an excellent chance at a big upset win early in the career of Niko Medved in Greenville.

There were few bright spots in Southern Conference play, as the Paladins would claim just three wins in 18 league contests. The season would prove to be a learning curve for Croone, and it would prove to be a season in which the young, jet-quick guard would really start to emerge as a complete basketball player.

The non-conference slate would include some thumpings, as the Paladins took their lumps against the likes of College of Charleston (L, 89-55), California (L, 90-60), and Clemson (71-35).

Unfortunately, Furman won't be able to exercise revenge on Clemson for that particular loss this season, after the Tigers backed out of a meeting at the Bon Secours Wellness Center in Greenville slated for the 2015-16. One would assume that there is a good reason for Clemson backing out of the contest with the 2015 Southern Conference Tournament finalist Paladins.

Though Furman struggled in SoCon play, Croone continued to provide the kind of production worthy of one of the top emerging talents in the mid-major ranks.

In a Jan.18 meeting with arch-rival Citadel in Charleston, Croone would help the Paladins hammer home one of their three Southern Conference wins, as the Paladins would go to McAlister Field House, and though Croone had just 12 points, it was a certain bucket in that game that will not soon be forgotten by the Paladin faithful, as the diminutive 6-0 guard put talented 6-6 Bulldog freshman Matt Van Scyoc on a poster with a tomahawk slam that brought a collective "oohs" and "ahhs" from fans on-hand to take in the mid-January conference game. A clip of the athletic finish can be viewed below, and it's well worth bookmarking the link .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVwyvw0LaIg

Furman basketball hasn't seen finishes like that from a point guard since the days of explosive leaper Troy McCoy back in the mid-late 1990s. The Paladins certainly have had athleticism over the years, with the likes of Andre Kerr (1995-97), Karim Souchu (), Quan Prowell (2002-04) and Amu Saaka (2009-11), but the the type of athleticism that Croone possesses is now in abundance in Greenville. Prowell and Kerr ended up transferring out of the Furman program, while Saaka transferred to play his final two seasons in the Purple and White.

Croone and the Paladins would get two more Southern Conference wins, knocking off The Citadel in Greenville (W,76-67) and Appalachian State (W,68-53), but those would prove to be the final two wins of the campaign, as the Paladins were soundly beaten by Georgia Southern (L, 65-50) in the opening round of the conference tournament.

Though the Paladins finished a disappointing 9-21 and 3-15, Croone would post good enough numbers to complete the season with First-Team All-SoCon accolades, as well as ranking second in the SoCon in scoring (19.1 PPG), while averaging 4.4 RPG, 3.7 APG and 1.7 SPG in his second season in Greenville.

CROONE'S FRESHMAN SEASON (2012-13):

During Croone's freshman season as a Paladin, which would turn out to be former head coach Jeff Jackson's final season as head coach at Furman, Croone and the Paladins would finish out the season with lowest win totals in school history,as the Paladins would win just seven games against 24 losses.

Croone would finish second on the team in scoring, averaging 9.9 PPG and posted a team best 4.0 APG and completed the season with a team-leading 38 steals. Croone played only 27 of the 31 games, suffering a fractured foot late in the season in a late-season loss, however, would return for the Southern Conference Tournament, helping the Paladins to a 55-51 win over Samford.

It would be Croone that would post 11 points, two steals and a pair of assists, as the Paladins were able to gut out the important win in a game which saw him less than 100%.

Suprisingly, Croone was snubbed from the All-SoCon Freshman squad, but it probably had more to do with his late-season injury. Still, it was clear Croone was one of the best freshman in the league. His 14 assists in a 90-71 win over Southern Wesleyan set a new single-game assist for the Paladins. In 14 SoCon games, Croone averaged 11.2 PPG.

CROONE'S LEGACY?

Workaholic. Soft-spoken. Humble. Perfectionist. They are four words that describe the rising senior guard from Covington, GA., who now finds himself adding one other adjective to describe him--leader.

When I first met Stephen Croone by contacting over Facebook last year, I found a person I did not expect to find. When I would ask him questions about the season, and about his game for my blog, he was genuine and honestly, he was a young man searching for answers.

In this business, media members are told you are to be neutral, and not to have favorites or root for teams. The more I got to know Stephen Croone, the more I was impressed.

At the Southern Conference Tournament last year, it was clear the switch had been flipped. No longer was he a quiet leader. No longer did Croone exclusively wear the cape, expect others to follow and question himself, he was like a giddy kid at the candy store, jumping up and down, encouraging his young, talented teammates and having fun.

That fun would nearly culminate in doing something remarkable, finishing just four points from becoming the first SoCon team to ever win four games in four days in the current format of the Southern Conference Tournament. The smile was a far cry from the grimace that Croone wore for much of his career prior to last March.

In an informal conversation with Furman basketball sports information director Jordan Caskey, I broached the subject of Croone and what an impressive young man he was. Caskey agreed and went on to say, though not a direct quote, that the young guard was really hard on himself after Furman losses. He wore them like a constant depression. It's rare you find those that love the game that much.

At one point in our correspondence last season, Croone was wondering if it would ever happen--if things would ever truly happen--and then like a bolt of lightning, Furman came alive in Asheville.

The smiles would begin late in the season, and after the Paladins got an important win over Western Carolina late, Croone went down with an abdominal strain, and the Paladins got a hard-fought 53-49. It might not have been the most aesthetically pleaseing of wins, but the guts and the fun the Paladins had in getting the win was something that was noticeable.

Furman's regular-season finale was against league juggernaut Wofford, and without Croone due to an abdominal strain, I was not looking forward to covering what I thought might be a blowout loss. Little did I know. I was a doubting Thomas, but Croone's humility is something I recall about our correspondence during the season.

He deflected the conversation away from himself, and commented on how players like John Davis III and Daniel Fowler were continuing to improve, and prior to that, how Devin Sibley was about to go off after his recent practice form. He was right on all accounts. He was leading, and he was believing. Croone was suddenly confident, and the change was apparent.

Though he did not utter this in quote of paraphrase, it was easily to deductively reason what his confidence in others was doing. By complimenting and seeing that improvement, he was relieved and the pressure was off.

He could smile because he could watch like a fan at times. With Sibley scoring prowess and with Fowler becoming a man on the defensive end, and with John Davis III's big night against Wofford, it was not a given that Furman would win once in Asheville, but it was easy to

A 27-point outing and a big 73-56 opening round win over The Citadel and then the upset wins over Chattanooga and Mercer, which had handed the Paladins agonizing regular-season losses, were enough to prove something to themselves. Just before the tournament, I got a message from Croone, I am going to share it.

"My mindset now is you have to go through something to get to something and im fed up now so whatever we do this week will see how it works out Thursday. I think we can make a run in the tourney," Croone said. (Feb 23, 2015)

Croone made it a crusade, and he played angry and loose. He had fun, and his smile along with Furman's team confidence left an indelible mark on him and all those who watched the SoCon Tournament, whether a Furman fan, fan of another school or media member.

During our correspondence in the regular-season, Croone was unwavering in his confidence of his younger teammates--the personification of a leader. It's often said that a person of good character is judged by what he or she does when no one is watching. In this case, it wasn't that I think Croone would have ever said anything bad about his teammates, but the fact is, he didn't have to. Not to me. He didn't have to be positive or routinely tell me how excited he was about his teammates, but he did just that. He went out of his way to compliment each one. Here is just one of those exercpts.

"Daniel is coming on strong at the perfect time. John Davis III is showing some really positive signs too," Croone said.

His positive attitude was natural, and it wasn't a performance. It doesn't mean he is perfect, nor does it mean success is immediately on the horizon for the Paladins, but what it does do is show this team has the type of character is in place to make that reality and build on last season's success.

The reason Furman will win basketball games next year will have less to do with the outstanding player Croone is, and more to do with the kind of person he is becoming, along with his teammates. Following a program that has had successful seasons able to be counted on one hand over the past 35 years, and certainly, I can remember two seasons in my lifetime in which I would really consider successful.

The 1991-92 campaign saw the Paladins tie for a league title and win 20 regular-season games under Butch Estes. A loss in the SoCon semifinals would see Furman find its hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980. In 2010-11, the Paladins were again a 20-game winner, bowing out in the heartbreak.

Croone 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.

With Croone, Kendrec Ferrara and Larry Wideman the veteran leaders of this club, meshing perfectly with the four rising sophomores and incoming freshmen, there is good reason to believe that Croone's senior season might be one for the record books.

But it will be less how Croone finishes his individual career at Furman and more about the team, and this senior class closes out its career at Furman. Three regular seasons of futility could all be erased with one season, and that's Croone's Crusade--his legacy will be like any hero of the SoCon's past--what his team does. Like what Anquell McCollum did at Western Carolina in 1996, with the likes of Scott Scholtz and Joel Fleming alongside. Or what about Willie Young, Johnny Taylor and Chris Mims at Chattanooga a year later, or Stephen Curry and Jason Richards in 2007-08 at Davidson.

Now, Croone and company have a unique opportunity to unit themselves with Furman's rich history, which includes the likes of Frank Selvy, Clyde Mayes and Jonathan Moore.

Croone, Sibley, Davis, Fowler, Ferrara, Wideman and Geoff Beans etc. have infused excitement back into Furman basketball once again, and along with coach Medved and staff, few outside that close group believed what was done could be done last year.

Now, the Paladins won't surprise anyone and it will be a much different task this season, but the Paladins look like they are ready to tackle the challenge ahead. Like the diamond, Croone and the Paladins have been strenghened through experiences, hardened to the core, forged from heat and pressure. Now it's time to see how bright they can shine. It's been a "crooning process."

COSTA RICA FUN:

The picture above says it all. Furman traveled to Costa Rica and flashed smiles from ear-to-ear from the time the Paladins stepped off the plane in San Jose. In the soccer-crazed country that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil last summer--an unprecendented feat for the national team simply referred to as "Los Ticos"--Furman's basketball team got a flavor of the high quality of basketball played in one of the most pictureque countries in the world in its trip to Central American country in early August.

The Paladin team had the more fun teaching the children in Costa Rica than playing themselves from all appearances, and it a good time was had by all--for all an unforgettable experience no doubt.

Furman played Costa Rica's national team twice, which included a 51-38 win over Los Ticos, which was impressive considering Costa Rica's wins in recent outings, which included a 15-point win over Sun Belt tournament finalist Georgia Southern about a week before Furman paid a visit.
Stay tuned for more coverage of Furman and Southern Conference basketball in the days and weeks to come, as I will be previewing each of the 10 teams in the lead up to the 2015-16 season. It shapes up to be one of the most exciting in the recent memory of SoCon hoops.