CULLOWHEE, N.C.--Saturday's game between Furman and Western Carolina will end the second chapter of a three-chapter season for both teams that sport Purple as their primary school color, however, both teams will be looking to establish momentum heading to Asheville and chapter three of the 2015-16 season--the Southern Conference Tournament slated for Asheville and US Cellular Arena next weekend.
Both teams head into Saturday's regular-season finale with the knowledge that neither will be opening the tournament on the first day, which starts Friday, March 4 for the men. The Paladins, with a win, would be the No. 3 seed, but with a Wofford loss at East Tennessee State and a loss in Cullowhee, could still end up as the No. 3 seed, but it wouldn't the way Niko Medved would like his club to claim the No. 3 overall seed to next weekend's proceedings.
Furman comes in looking to rebound from two-straight losses, while Western Carolina has remained one of the hottest teams in the SoCon, with a chance to garner the No. 5 seed in the tournament and could very well end up as Furman's opening round opponent next weekend, which is a scenario that would obviously favor the Catamounts playing in basically a home setting in Asheville. Whether Furman finishes as the No. 3 or the No. 6, it could very well mean a matchup with Western Carolina in the opening round of the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament.
The Catamounts are a team hitting on cylinders right now, and playing some of the best defensive basketball in the Southern Conference. In its last outing, the Catamounts held the Wofford Terriers to just 48 points in a 53-48, which was the lowest combined score in a win for the Purple and Gold-clad Cats since defeating mountain rival Appalachian State, 50-49, at Varsity Gym back on Jan. 22, 1979.
The Catamounts come having won six of their past seven games, including three in a row. Western and Furman met back on January 28, with Furman getting the narrow 62-60 win at Timmons Arena. Furman comes in having lost two straight by a combined nine points, losing 77-73 at Wofford last Saturday and dropped an 80-75 decision to East Tennessee State in Johnson City Thursday night.
PREVIEWING THE MATCHUP:
The Catamounts come into the contest as a team peaking at an opportune time heading into next weekend's Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville. Larry Hunter's Catamounts, who were picked seventh in the Southern Conference preseason poll, have exceeded those expectations having already locked up an opening round bye in the Southern Conference Tournament.
Like Furman, the Catamounts have been a tough out inside their own building this season, having posted an 11-2 home mark and have been strong throughout the Larry Hunter era inside the friendly confines, having posted a 104-39 mark entering Saturday's regular-season finale.
The Catamounts have relied on the talented Mike Brown (16.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG) all season for scoring production, and Brown has not disappointed in that role, having assumed that scoring role following the graduation of talented scorer James Sinclair from a year ago.
Brown is one of the toughest guards in the Southern Conference and has played some of his best basketball against the Paladins, as he enters the clash of Purple have poured in 27 points in the first meeting between the two in Greenville earlier this season, and averaged better than 13 points and 10 boards in a pair of games last season.
The 6-2 guard is among the toughest in mid-major basketball, and he is one of the more physical guards in the SoCon. In Thursday's win over Wofford, it was Brown that hit a pair of key free throws late and finished with 12 points that helped key a Catamount win over the Terriers.
Brown is also an excellent physical, on-the-ball defender, and that's something that doesn't always show up in the box score or in the headlines. The athletic guard had a season-high 29 points in an early-season win over UNC Asheville, and his 27 points against Furman is his high in Southern Conference play this season.
Joining Brown in the backcourt will Lyon, France product Marc Gosselin, as he is an excellent perimeter shooter and and a solid defensive presence that could cause matchup problems for the Paladins. Rhett Harrleson (12.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG), who ranks tops in the Southern Conference in three-pointers made (77 triples/ 1st in SoCon/44% from three/2nd in SoCon) this season, comes off the bench and point guard Devin Peterson (3.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 47 assists), is a good ball-handler and floor general, rounding out a solid quartet of guards for the Catamounts.
It could at least be argued that the Catamounts are enjoying their best season in terms of frontcourt productivity since the days of Richie Gordon, thanks in large part to the play of Torrion Brummitt (13.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG). The tough-minded forward is coming off a week which saw him garner Southern Conference Player of the Week plaudits, after averaging a double-double last week, helping the Catamounts to wins over Mercer and The Citadel . In the win over the Bears, Brummitt provided a strong 15 points and 10 boards, while following that performance by posting 24 points, 12 boards and four blocks in a win over The Citadel.
Rounding out the starters in the frontcourt will be Justin Browning (9.7 PPG, 2.3 SPG, 5.7 RPG), who is a player noted for his physical play and defensive prowess. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he can affect a game with hustle plays, including defensive transition, which saw him key the win over Wofford with a late block after tracking back on Thursday night. The native of Sycaulauga, AL, enters Saturday's regular-season Southern Conference regular-season finale ranking eighth in the NCAA in steals-per-game (2.34). He is the only forward in the nation to rank in the top 10 nationally.
Furman continues to be led by one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league, with Devin Sibley (10.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG) and Stephen Croone (17.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG) the driving the Paladin offensive machine this season, but its been on the defensive end where the Paladins have been able to win a majority of their 11 Southern Conference games this season. John Davis III (5.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG) rounds out the Paladin backcourt trio, and has been the rudder that has steadied the Paladin ship offensively, and helping the Paladins keep their offensive turnover ratio at a manageable level this season.
That defensive mindset, which has been buoyed by two of the league's best defenders, in sophomore Daniel Fowler (5.5 PPG, 1.9 RPG) and senior Larry Wideman (2.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG), have helped the Paladins rank at or near the top of the Southern Conference in scoring defense (65.8 PPG/1st in SoCon) and field goal percentage defense (43%/4th in SoCon) nearly all season.
In the paint, it's been the production of Kris Acox (8.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and freshman phenom Matt Rafferty (8.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG) that has helped the Paladins put a vastly underrated frontcourt on the floor each night in Southern Conference play.
As good as Acox has been on the offensive end of late, posting double-figure scoring efforts in each of the past five games, it's been Rafferty's play on defense that has also helped the Paladins, averaging 3.0 BPG in the last five outings for Furman, including four blocks in the 77-73 loss in Spartanburg last week.
As good as the Paladins have been in their starting five this season, it was an unsung hero that helped the Paladins to a narrow win over Western in Greenville last month, as Geoff Beans (5.5 PPG, 1.9 RPG) posted 16 points off the bench, including going 3-of-4 from three-point range in the 62-60 Furman win.
NOTE OF INTEREST: Western has won four of its last five against Furman in Cullowhee, and the Paladins have not won at the Ramsey Center since January of 2012. However, Furman has won back-to-back games against Western.