All eyes will be on Johnson City, Tenn. on Wednesday night.
Furman had its 10-game winning streak snapped Saturday afternoon in emphatic fashion at the hands of UNC Greensboro, 73-52. Meanwhile, East Tennessee State completed a season sweep of Chattanooga for the first time since the 2003-04 season. Those two games moved ETSU within a half-game of the Paladins in the Southern Conference standings, and set up a crucial clash Wednesday night, with the winner likely to own at least a share of the conference title.
When these two teams met in January, Furman escaped 75-62, and head coach Niko Medved called the Bucs the most talented team he has seen in the league this season.
The Paladins were tremendous defensively that night, as Furman held the Bucs to a season-low 22 points in the opening half. Furman was able to build its lead to as many as 28 in the second half, before having to survive a furious rally from the Bucs down the stretch. Furman held ETSU to 38 percent shooting, including 3-for-21 from three.
ETSU’s press spurred its rally, as the Palladins turned it over 17 times and saw their lead cut to single digits.
While Furman comes in having won 10 of its last 11 games, ETSU is also on fire. The Bucs have won eight of their last nine and four in a row.
Furman hasn’t been a position to win a regular-season Southern Conference title since 1991, but the program has seen a resurgence under Medved. He’s helped put Furman back on the Southern Conference and mid-major map in just four seasons, after taking over a program that had won only seven games the previous season. After winning just 17 games in his first two regular seasons, the Paladins experienced their breakthrough at the 2015 Southern Conference Tournament. The 10th-seeded Paladins made it all the way to the title game before falling to top-seeded Wofford, 67-64.
Over the past couple of seasons, Medved has led the Paladins to a 39-25 overall record, the program’s first postseason win since 1974, and an impressive 24-10 record against Southern Conference competition.
Last time out against UNCG, Furman scored a season-low 52 points. Its 21-point loss was also its worst since losing 83-58 to No. 13 UConn in November 2015. It was Furman’s worst home loss since the opening game of the 2014-15 season.
Picked fifth in the preseason SoCon coaches poll, the Paladins have exceeded expectations this season, and are on the verge of winning their first Southern Conference regular-season title in 26 years, but it will be far from an easy task. The Paladins must face both teams that have effectively ended their Southern Conference Tournament dreams each of the past two seasons — ETSU and Wofford — to close out the year.
Like Medved, ETSU’s Steve Forbes has helped the Bucs get back to respectability, winning 46 total games in just two seasons at the helm. The Bucs reached the Southern Conference title game last season before losing to Chattanooga. With Saturday’s triumph over the Mocs, the Bucs appear to have flipped the script in that Volunteer State rivalry.
Now, Furman and ETSU find themselves in what has been an exciting Southern Conference title race down the stretch. Furman can win its first conference title in 26 years. ETSU can win its first in 13. Wednesday will go a long way toward deciding it.