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Furman hosts East Tennessee State in crucial early SoCon tilt

It’s on in the SoCon.

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Xavier
ETSU head coach Steve Forbes
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Furman and East Tennessee State will square off Thursday night at Timmons Arena in a game most around the league have circled on their calendars, as it will go a long way in deciding the Southern Conference regular-season title in 2017-18.

The two teams will be facing off on the college basketball hardwood for the 55th time, with the Bucs holding a narrow 28-26 lead in the all-time series. They split last season’s meetings, with Furman claiming a 75-62 win over the Bucs in Greenville, and ETSU grabbing a 93-81 overtime win over the Paladins in Johnson City.

Not much has changed at the top of the league this season, with all three teams that shared the regular-season Southern Conference title once again looking like prime contenders to battle it out.

ETSU head coach Steve Forbes has done nothing but win since arriving in Johnson City three years ago. In his three seasons at the helm, he has posted a 65-24 record a, which includes winning the Southern Conference Tournament title and sharing the regular-season league crown last season with Furman and UNC Greensboro.

The Bucs posted an 89-48 win over VMI last time out, while Furman is coming off its first conference loss, dropping a 79-70 decision at Wofford Saturday night. The Bucs have won 12 of their last 13 games, including eight in a row.

Furman has won 19 of its past 20 home Southern Conference games, and 18 of its past 23 league games overall. Dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season, Furman is 29-12 in Southern Conference play, while East Tennessee State has posted a 33-8 mark in that same span.

The Paladins are under the direction of first-year head coach Bob Richey, who helped Furman to its best start in SoCon play since the 1986-87 season.

Players to watch

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

ETSU has done well under the Forbes model of success. There’s a method to the way he does things, and he has been able to make the Bucs an instant competitor for the SoCon year-in and year-out by procuring the right pieces to the puzzle.

Players like Ge’Lawn Guyn, Deuce Bello, and T.J. Cromer are examples of the type of talented player that Forbes can attract to the jewel of the tri-cities. This season, Peter Jurkin (8.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and Jalan McCloud (11.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.9 APG) have been the key pieces to the overall puzzle for the Bucs. The lone holdover from the Murry Bartow era — senior guard Desonta Bradford (13.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG) — has been the unquestioned leader of the Bucs all season.

Bradford has been the do-everything guard for the Bucs this season, and leads the team in pretty much every meaningful category. This includes scoring average (13.9), rebounding average (5.8) and minutes average(31.1). He also ranks second on the team in assists, handing out 3.4 helpers-per-game.

Jurkin has been a force in the paint this season for the Bucs. He enters Thursday as arguably the SoCon’s top rim protector, ranking third in the league in blocks, averaging 1.4 swats per game.

David Burrell (7.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG) will team in the paint with Jurkin, and Burrell is one of the best athletes in the Southern Conference. Burrell posted his best game of the season in a win over Tusculum, with 18 points, and is coming off a 17-point effort in the lopsided win over VMI.

Off the bench, the Bucs have some impressive depth, including players like freshman forward Bo Hodges (9.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG), Serbian center Mladen Armus (5.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG), sophomore guard Jason Williams (4.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG), and senior guard Devontavius Payne (9.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG), which has allowed them to get off to such a fast start in SoCon play. Armus is a player that has been impressive defensively, and has been a good complement to Jurkin and Burrell in the paint off the bench this season.

Williams actually saw his third start of the season in the win over VMI, and could find himself in the starting rotation Thursday night. Payne, who has started four games this season for the Bucs, might be the most complete player off the bench for ETSU.

Furman counters with preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year Devin Sibley (15.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.6 APG), as well as four returning starters from a team that tied a school-record by winning 23 games last year.

Sibley has eight games with 20 or more points this season, and is coming off a 17-point effort in the loss at Wofford last Saturday night. Sibley has struggled a bit shooting the ball from three as of late, however, has been hard to stop when he decides to drive the ball to the basket.

Sibley, a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, has had some strong games against the Bucs in the past, and had 19 and 13 points, respectively, against the Bucs in a pair of games last season.

Sibley will team with Daniel Fowler (11.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG), Andrew Brown (7.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and John Davis III (11.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.5 APG) in the backcourt Thursday night. Fowler is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the SoCon, and could draw the assignment of trying to slow down Bradford.

Brown had one of his best games in Furman’s win at Chattanooga last week, posting 16 points in that win. Senior point guard John Davis III has made the Paladins go offensively this season, and when he plays well, the Paladins as a whole usually do as well. The Beachwood, Ohio native has 10 double-figure scoring games this season, including a pair of 20-point performances this season. He had a season-high 21 points in a win over South Carolina State, while posting a 20-point effort in a win over non-conference foe Elon.

Rounding out the Furman starting five is one of the models of consistency this season, in junior forward Matt Rafferty (11.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG). Rafferty, like ETSU’s Bradford, has contributed in several major categories for the Paladins this season. The 6-7 forward from Hinsdale, Illinois, ranks second in the SoCon in rebounding (7.9 APG), 10th in assists (2.9 APG), tied for third in steals (1.7), and eighth in blocks (0.9 BPG).

The Paladins have plenty of quality depth off the bench, but it’s been sophomore guard Jordan Lyons (8.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG) and forward Geoff Beans (3.2 PPG, 1.5 RPG) that have been the best contributors as of late. Lyons has posted double figures in three of the past four games for the Paladins, including a 14-point effort in the loss to Wofford Saturday night.

Beans has been on the cusp of double-figure scoring performances in three of the past six games, with nine points against Tennessee, The Citadel and Wofford.

Who Wins: ETSU 75, Furman 72