THE LEGACY OF STEPHEN CROONE
by John Hooper
GREENVILLE, S.C.--One word nor picture could do it justice. No coach could encapsulate the 2015-16 season with a word or phrase that would accurately give a portrayal of just how profoundly happy they were of the 2015-16 Furman basketball team.
Perhaps its that smile that you get from coach Niko Medved or assistant Bob Richey when going to interview them about an upcoming game. One thing is for sure, the Paladins are building a strong foundation under the direction of the their young head coach, who will be entering his fifth season as the head coach of the Paladins next season.
A season that will be greeted with as much anticipation as any with the return of four starters. However, it was the three pieces that won't be back, most notably a player that donned the No. 14 Jersey, that folks will be celebrating and wondering about how each loss will affect the team's overall dynamic in regards to the 2016-17 season.
Furman's Stephen Croone, Larry Wideman and Kendrec Ferrara were gamers for the Paladins. They simply brought their best each night, and on any given night, one of those three probably factored into a Paladin victory. Croone would be the first to recognize all three and tell you that without those other guys, building this foundation by himself would have been nearly impossible.
They truly knew their roles well, but Croone could do it all, and dating back to his freshman season, he was the type player that you knew was a step ahead of the others on the floor even at such a young age. It was that No. 14 jersey worn by Croone that matched the unprecedented amount of home wins the Paladins were able to acheive during the 2015-16 season.
Perhaps the most commendable thing about Croone, Wideman and Ferrara goes far beyond what they did for this program on the college basketball hardwood. It goes down to the very heart each player played with each night, allowing the Paladins to capture two thrilling buzzer-beating wins at Timmons Arena this season, which to my knowledge, has never happened in the history of Furman basketball in a single-season.
Croone closed out his career with a strong performance, posting 29 points in the loss that ended the campaign to Louisiana Lafayette, leaving him at 1,936 career points, which ranks the senior from Covington, GA fifth on the school's all-time scoring ledger. He's the highest scoring Furman player since Karim Souchu (2000-2003), who posted 2,014 points during his standout career for the Paladins.
Croone was named the Unanimous Southern Conference Player of the Year just prior to the Southern Conference Tournament, and his importance to the Paladins in his final season on the hardwood was paramount.
Despite the early part of the season nursing a thumb injury, Croone battled through the ailment and by the time Southern Conference play came around, was ready to make his presence known. It was the first time in the history of the program that a Furman player has been named unanimous coaches and media Player of the Year, and he became the first Paladin to garner the award since Chuck Vincent in 1998.
In conference play, Croone stepped his game up to another level, averaging 19.2 PPG in league games and was tied for first in scoring in league games, along with VMI's QJ Peterson. Croone's affect was no doubt important in four of the biggest home wins of the season against Wofford, East Tennessee State and Mercer, and maybe four of the biggest conference wins in the history of Timmons Arena. With that being put in perspective, three of the four teams won at least 19 games on the season, and the other one, which won 15, was the league's defending champion.
In the win over Wofford, which helped the Paladins snap a six-game skid to the Terriers, Croone had just two points in the opening half, but posted 15 in the second frame. No one basket was more important than the final one--a tip-in of a Devin Sibley miss at the buzzer--as Furman posted its first win over Wofford since Jan. 14, 2013, when the Paladins posted a 69-65 win over the Terriers at Timmons Arena. Croone scored nine of the Paladins' final 11 points in the contest, as Furman closed the game on an 11-2 run to capture their first win over the Terriers of the Medved era.
In an early 70-55 win over eventual Southern Conference regular-season title winner Chattanooga, Croone helped combine with backcourt mate Devin Sibley to score 35 of Furman's 70 points. The senior from Covington, GA, posted 17 points, four assists, three steals and three boards in the win.
Against East Tennessee State, it was Croone and Sibley carving up the ETSU zone like an old Thanksgiving turkey, with the duo combining for 41 of the Paladins' 74 points in that win.
The win against ETSU saw Croone finish the day with 21 points, went a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe and dished out three helpers in the win.
Croone would save his best performances for his lasts in front of the home folks, including the regular-season finale against Mercer, helping the Paladins past the Bears with a season-high 31 points in the 85-74 win over Mercer.
Against Louisiana-Lafayette in the 80-72 second-round loss, Croone went out with a strong performance posting 29 points. All told, in his final season in the Purple and White, he recorded double figure scoring games in 31 of 35 games in his final season for the Paladins, and for his career, finished with 87 double figure scoring games in 94 outings.
Croone is one of those players that comes along maybe once every 20 years at some mid-major programs, while at others they come along with more regularity. However, I think coach Medved summed it up best just after Furman's emotional win over Mercer when he said. I can replace points, rebounds, assists, blocks, but I can't replace the people these guys are.
Not only was Croone significant for what he did as a scorer, but also what he did on the defensive end of the floor and dishing out the basketball. For his four years in Greenville, Croone was truly a game-changer in every sense. In terms of what he could and the things he could do to affect a given basketball game, there have been few like Stephen Croone come through the doors of Timmons Arena in recent seasons. No one will forget those moments he provided the Paladin faithful, including the demonstrative dunk against The Citadel as a sophomore, or the 40-point effort against Liberty.
In coach Niko Medved's words "If that guy's not in the Hall-of-Fame here, I don't know who is?" You can rest assured that it won't be too much longer before the Paladin legend finds his jersey hanging aloft in Timmons Arena. When that happens, we will recall that moment when things changed for a program. Things changed with that foundational season. Things changed because of a player like Stephen Croone. Croone was most recently named to the NABC All-District 22 First Team.
Now, Croone will ply his trade looking to make his dream come true, as the waiting game begins and a hopeful invitation to Portsmouth. Only time will tell.
For me, it's been a pleasure to be able to cover such a remarkable young man the past few seasons and I wish him well going forward. He's ready to be that spark plug at a higher level now and he just might shock a few folks on his way there.