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Furman set to open 2016-17 season at Presbyterian

The Paladins look to build off a historic season last year.

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, the Furman Paladins return to the court on Friday when they visit Presbyterian in a 7 p.m. tip-off. Furman is looking to build on last year’s historic season, in which fourth-year head coach Niko Medved led the Paladins to 19 wins and just the second postseason win in program history — a buzzer-beater over Louisiana-Monroe in the CIT.

On top of all that, the Paladins finished third in the Southern Conference and reached the semifinals of the SoCon Tournament for the second-straight season. The past two years have led to a resurgence around the program ad the team looks to carry the momentum into the new season.

But as the Paladins move forward, they will have to do so without Stephen Croone, the since-graduated leader of last year’s squad and 2016 SoCon Player of the Year.

Furman does, however, return its other four starters from last year and was picked third by the league’s media and fifth by SoCon head coaches in the preseason rankings.

For Presbyterian, the outlook is a little more cloudy. Like many teams in the Big South, the Blue Hose fell victim to the transfer craze that has become a trend in the low-major conferences, as top player DeSean Murray left for Auburn. Murray scored 18 points when these two teams got together last year. The Blue Hose finished 11-20 a year ago with a 5-13 mark in Big South action, good for 10th place overall — the same spot they are picked to finish in this season.

Who to watch (Furman):

With Croone having graduated, the onus on scoring and team leadership will fall on Devin Sibley (12.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg in 2015-16). Sibley took a little while to get going last season, but when he did, he was exceptional, averaging 19.4 points over the final eight games of the season.

For the second-straight season, Sibley was among the team’s best perimeter shooters, finishing third on the team in three-pointers made (44). He has scored a career-high 29 points twice in his career, which both came in losses to East Tennessee State.

Sibley is a much different type of scorer than Croone was for the Paladins, with a stronger build. Croone’s savvy was getting to the foul line, as he was one of the nation’s leaders in both free throw attempts and free throws made. It led to the Paladins’ being one of the most efficient teams in the nation at getting to the line and will be a trait Furman will have to figure out how to replace.

While there isn’t too much one can take out of an exhibition game, Sibley did lead the Paladins with 23 points in their 101-72 win over Bob Jones. A concern from that game? The Paladins were just 5-28 from three.

It will also be important for the Paladins to get production underneath in conjunction with Kris Acox (8.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who like his sidekick Matt Rafferty, posted a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards in the win last season.

Who to watch (Presbyterian):

The backcourt tandem of Ed Drew (6.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Reggie Dillard (8.5 ppg, 2.6 apg) will the the two to keep an eye on. The 6’4 and 6’5 guards are physical and can finish at the rack, as well as shoot from the outside.

Dillard posted just six points against Furman in Timmons last season, while Drew saw only four minutes of floor action. Both are expected to be relied upon this season, and in a recent quadruple overtime win over Belmont Abbey in an exhibition, Dillard led the Blue Hose with 21 points, while Drew added six points and seven boards in the dramatic 124-118 triumph.

Prediction: Furman 72, Presbyterian 64