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Furman, UNC Greensboro open SoCon play in highly-anticipated matchup

The Paladins and Spartans have battled some early-season adversity, but it is an important game Wednesday

NCAA Basketball: NC-Greensboro at Arkansas
Keyshaun Langley ranks second on the Spartans with 14.3 points per game.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Series: UNCG and Furman will be meeting for the 45th time on the hardwood Wednesday night,with the Spartans holding the narrow 23-21 advantage in the all-time series history. The perennial Southern Conference title contenders split a pair of meetings last season with Furman claiming a 69-57 win at the Greensboro Coliseum and UNCG being the lone SoCon team to win at Timmons Arena, handing the Paladins an 88-80 home loss in early January.

Preview: Furman opens up defense of its 2022-23 Southern Conference title Wednesday night against one of the SoCon’s top programs and one of the 2023-24 favorites.

Over the past eight seasons, no two teams in the Southern Conference have more wins than Furman and UNC Greensboro. Furman posted a 187-89 record since the start of the 2015-16 season, while the Spartans posted a 186-93 mark during that same span.

UNCG and Furman have also been two teams that have seen some outstanding battles over the past eight seasons, and it normally ends with both teams getting a share of the spoils, as they did last season, with each winning on the other’s home floor.

Both teams come into SoCon play struggling. The Paladins dropped their most-recent contest to Division II Anderson. The Spartans dropped three of their last four since losing leading scorer and one of the leading contenders for the SoCon Player of the Year award in the non-conference slate. The loss to Anderson marked Furman’s first to a non-Division I opponent since December 2013, when the Paladins suffered a home setback to Division II and South Atlantic Conference member Mars Hill 97-93 at Timmons Arena.

Furman’s loss to the Trojans Saturday shows the true nature of how bipolar the sport of college basketball can be from season-to-season, and though the Paladins graduated Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson off last year’s team that beat Virginia last March, as well as its top two leading scorers this season, one would have thought the Paladins would have enough in the tank to beat Anderson.

Certainly there was the other dynamic to that loss, which was the fact that former Paladin assistant Jimmie Williams obviously knew Furman’s personnel, and without JP Pegues at the point, it made it an easier decision to apply full-court pressure from the start of the game to try and shake things up a bit.

It worked, and although the Paladins took decent care of the basketball, it was enough of a chance taken by Williams to throw the undermanned Paladins a bit of a curve ball. The key to the win, though, was Furman allowed 19 offensive rebounds, went 2-for-20 from 3-point range and missed 14 shots at the charity stripe, creating the perfect storm of events.

In its final two games of non-conference play against Presbyterian and Anderson, the Paladins connected on just 14.8% from long range. The 2-for-20 effort against Anderson was the lowest total of made threes in a game under the direction of head coach Bob Richey and lowest since Feb. 12, 2015, when the Paladins connected on just 1-of-10 from long-range in a 93-59 loss at VMI.

The Paladins, who connected on 122 three-pointers in 13 non-conference games last season, are slightly ahead of that pace this season with 124 made triples, but Furman has shot 34 more 3-pointers than it did a year ago, having launched 393 long-range efforts this season, as opposed to launching 359 long-range efforts a year ago.

Quite simply, Furman shouldn’t have won the game if you saw it as I did, and if Furman would have won, it would have seemed the ethics of basketball were somehow flawed. All that to say, the Paladins have suffered just about every adversity a team could in the ways which the Paladins have lost this season, including setbacks earlier in the non-conference play.

With that said, the Paladins and Spartans have both battled injury struggles through the non-conference. Furman was without its two top scorers—Marcus Foster (19.8 PPG) and Pegues (18.4 PPG) last time out.

It’s still unclear who will be available for the Paladins, with three unnamed Paladins having come down with the flu this week, according to Richey in his bi-weekly press conference on Tuesday.

Foster, who injured his knee last month in a game at Princeton, is slated to return at some point later this month but won’t be available for the midweek clash to open league play or for Furman’s trip to Chattanooga on Saturday.

UNCG and its excellent head coach Mike Jones, who is now in his third season leading the Spartans, can at least on some level relate to Furman’s pain when it comes to missing important pieces to the puzzle due to injury.

Over the past four games, the Spartans have been without their most important and biggest piece to the overall hopeful championship puzzle—Mikeal Brown-Jones.

Brown-Jones leads the Spartans averaging 19.4 PPG and 7.4 RPG. Brown-Jones is again questionable for the mid-week SoCon opener with a leg injury. He is one of the best interior defenders in the Southern Conference and is one of the league’s most reliable and offensively efficient big men in the low post, shooting 57.7% from the field, which ranks third in the SoCon.

It’s not yet clear whether he will be back in the lineup in the big mid-week clash with the Paladins, however, what is clear is his presence or lack thereof could play a major role in the outcome of the matchup between two to league title hopefuls.

With both teams being short-handed, it certainly provides even more incentive for each to open league play, as both figure to be among the teams atop the league battling for a No. 1 seed in Asheville come the second week of March.

Common Opposition:

Furman and UNC Greensboro have taken on two of the tougher non-conference schedules in the Southern Conference, according to KenPom, with the Paladins having taken on a schedule that ranks No. 145 nationally in terms of strength, and the Spartans have played a schedule that ranks 196th nationally.

Those two schedules would rank in the upper portion of the league in terms of toughest non-conference schedules. Only Wofford’s schedule ranks inside the top 100 at No. 77.

The one non-conference opponent both the Paladins and Spartans have in common is Arkansas. Of course, with UNCG’s 78-72 win over the No. 14 Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena, it is also the source of the SoCon’s most significant non-conference win.

It was not only the biggest win for the Southern Conference this season, but the win over the Razorbacks ranks historically as a milestone win for the UNCG program, with it being the first SEC team the Spartans have ever beaten in the program’s history.

Coming off a heartbreaking 70-69 loss at Princeton in which Furman blew a double-digit lead in the final four minutes of the contest, the Paladins went to Bud Walton Arena without the services of leading scorer Foster, who was injured near the end of the first half of that contest, yet the Paladins battled the Razorbacks hard for 40 minutes, trailing by just five at halftime (40-35), but would go on to drop what was a 97-83 decision.

Not too uncommon

So you might even be wondering if a team has ever lost to a non-Division I program and gone on to win a Southern Conference title, and well, the answer is actually yes. So, while Furman has a long, long way to go to live up to their lofty preseason prognostication to repeat as Southern Conference champions, it’s not too uncommon.

During the 1995-96 season, Western Carolina won its only Southern Conference Tournament title and dropped a 60-58 decision at the Ramsey Center to Division II Coker College. The loss to the Cobras was part of a 1-7 start to the season – hardly a team that would remotely resemble a team that could go on to win a Division I conference and compete in the NCAA Tournament.

The Catamounts, who would end up being the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament and nearly upset the top-seeded Purdue before losing 73-71 in overtime, finished 17-13 during that particular campaign.

Just last season, Samford lost to Tennessee Southern with three players out due to injury, and ended up dropping an 84-82 contest to the NAIA program before going on to tie for the Southern Conference regular-season title after starting league play with an 8-0 record before suffering back-to-back league setbacks to Furman and Wofford.

And just earlier this season, Mercer opened the campaign with a head-scratching result against Clark Atlanta, dropping what was a 71-64 contest. However, no matter what perspective can be provided, it was certainly an embarrassing loss for the SoCon, as well as being most embarrassing to the SoCon reigning champions.

Previewing UNCG:

Like Furman, UNCG enters conference play looking to find its stride again, which the Spartans comfortably had following an 8-1 start to the campaign, including that aforementioned win over No. 14 Arkansas. The lone blemish in the first nine games of the season for UNCG came on the road at SEC member Vanderbilt, as the Spartans dropped what was a 74-70 decision in Nashville.

Seven straight wins for the Spartans would follow, starting with that stunner in Fayetteville, however, following the leg injury to Brown-Jones in the Elon win, things have been notably different. UNCG has lost three of its last four and has gone 0-3 against Division I competition, including a 72-37 loss at No. 21 Texas last Friday night.

UNCG is a drastically different team from what Furman has seen in recent seasons, and that evolution has been particularly noticeable on the offensive end of the court, where the Spartans have progressively gotten better as a shooting basketball team.

While the defensive numbers are still strong, it’s been the evolution of how the Spartans have become a more potent basketball team, with the ability to score points and shoot the ball with great accuracy that is seemingly the most noticeable difference of these Spartans, as opposed to how they were offensively under the direction of Wes Miller.

Miller’s strength was how he used a guy like James Dickey—an awesome rim protector on the defensive end—as a facilitator on the offensive end, as Dickey set great high ball screens, as well as being an outstanding passer of the ball into the low post, or being himself a target in the low-post as a scoring threat with his in incredibly athleticism, but also his vision and skill as a passer in the paint. It’s probably something that went overlooked outside of coaching circles during Dickey’s time at UNCG (2015-21).

Under Jones, that element of playing off the big is a little different, and there’s not really any high-ball screen element with how a big man link Brown-Jones is used. The Spartans are also a little more free flowing now with teams having to be aware that this team shoots as well off the dribble from the perimeter as any team in mid-major basketball, and that was an element that it showcased last season in the Spartans’ 88-80 overtime win in Greenville.

Entering Wednesday night’s SoCon opener, the Spartans rank just behind Furman in team field goal percentage this season, as the Spartans rank fourth in the league in team field goal percentage, connecting on 46.8% of their shots from the field this season. In terms of scoring offense, UNCG can do that effectively as well, ranking fifth overall in the conference in scoring offense (78.5 PPG).

UNCG’s staple has always been its dedication on the defensive end, and that hasn’t changed this season. The Spartans lead the SoCon in field goal percentage defense (39.5%), and come into the contest leading the league in assist/turnover ratio (1.47)

In terms of shooting the three this season, UNCG has been pretty solid when it comes to knocking down shots from long distance. The Spartans currently rank second in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage (38.2%), while ranking ahead of Furman in three-pointers made-per-game, as well as total three-pointers on the season (9.9 3-pt PG/129 3-pt FGs made).

Over the past couple of seasons, no team in the SoCon has seen more of a drastic trend upwards offensively than maybe the Spartans

Should Mikeal Brown-Jones not be able to go again on Wednesday night, it changes the dynamics and the obvious glaring dynamic is that someone else has to step up and provide some scoring. Keyshaun Langley (14.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Kobe Langley (6.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG) are a pair of veteran guards who possess know-how and savvy. Should the Spartans once again be without Brown-Jones, they will be expected to step up and provide the kind of leadership and timely shooting they were able to provide when the Spartans sprung an upset in Greenville last January.

The Langley brothers were absolutely a major part of UNCG’s win in Greenville in early January of 2023. Keyshaun Langley led the Spartans with a game-high 24 points, while brother Kobe Langley dished out a team-high six assists, as the Spartans were able to overcome a deficit late in regulation and eventually force overtime and come up with the thrilling win.

The next time around, the Paladins did a much better job of keeping Keyshaun Langley in check, limiting the Spartans’ star guard to just four points, while brother Kobe Langley, who would go on to lead the league in steals and garner SoCon Defensive Player of the Year honors for UNCG last season, to just five points and one assist.

It was one of Furman’s top defensive efforts of the season while also being one of UNCG’s worst shooting performances of the campaign.

Kobe Langley has continued to distribute the basketball as well as any guard in the league this season, having already dished out a league-leading 73 assists through the first 13 games in 2023-24, averaging 5.6 assists-per-game, which ranks second in the league.

Kobe Langley’s individual total of 27 thefts in 13 games (2.1 SPG) leads the conference, showing why he is such an effective cog in the wheel for that staunch and tenacious Spartans defense.

With that said, Jones’ team appears to have a little more scoring firepower this season, despite having graduated Keondre Kennedy and big man Mohammed Abdulsalam, who seemingly always had big outings against the Paladins.

The 2023-24 season has seen Donovan Atwell (11.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG) emerge as that third scorer for the Spartans this season, and he’s been one of top long-range marksman in the Southern Conference through the early portions of the 2023-24 slate.

A player that has kind of been an x-factor type player off the bench for the Spartans this season has been Joryiam Saizanou (6.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG). The Dutch-born Saizanou is a solid perimeter threat off the bench for the Spartans.

Rounding out the backcourt support for the Spartans off the bench is Akrum Ahemed (4.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG), who is a 6-foot-3 redshirt senior guard that averages a little over 19 minutes-per-game off the bench this season, having posted a pair of double-figure scoring performances this season, as he posted 10 points in a win over Eastern Kentucky and a season-high 11 points in a recent win over Virginia-Lynchburg.

Atwell gives the Spartans a 3-point assassin like they had not all that long ago, with pure shooters like Francis Alonso (2015-19) and Angelo Allegri, which opponents had to be keenly aware of all times due to their perimeter shooting acumen.

Atwell’s ability and quick release as a shooter makes him one of the most dangerous shooters in the open floor in the SoCon this season. He enters the contest ranking fourth overall in the SoCon in three-pointers made, having knocked down 36 triples so far in 2023-24.

If Mikeal Brown-Jones is unable to go this evening, look for both Jalen Breath (6.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG) and freshman Tim Ceasar (4.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG) will likely draw the starting assignments underneath the basket. Both have been solid in the paint, with Breath having started all 13 games for UNCG so far this season.

Helping supplement Breath and Ceasar in the paint this season have been Miles Jones (3.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who has had a good start to the season after having to miss the entire 2022-23 campaign with a knee injury, while 6-foot-10 freshman Domas Kazounas (4.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG) from Vilnius, Lithuania, has been a solid option off the bench when the Spartans want to go big.

Previewing Furman:

Furman’s 6-7 start to the season is one that might shock some, while others who have seen the Paladins play and seen the overall team health factor heavily for the first time in the Richey era will gain a deeper understanding and perspective of those struggles.

The fact is, the Paladins really don’t know who will seemingly be available from game-to-game. Pegues (18.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG) missed his second game of the season last time out against Anderson with a sprained ankle.

Pegues currently ranks third in the Southern Conference in scoring, averaging 18.4 PPG, while his 37.3% shooting clip from three-point range (31-of-83) ranks second on the team, and his 31 made threes also leads the team and ranks fourth overall in the league, and his 5.8 assists-per-game ranks Pegues second in the league in that statistical category.

Fresh off a career-high 29-point effort in the 117-110 loss at Tulane, the junior guard from the Music City posted his seventh 20-plus performance in 11 games this season in Furman’s win over Presbyterian back on Dec. 19. It was his fourth-straight 20-point scoring performance. In the month of December alone, Pegues averaged 23.0 PPG and dished out 6.5 APG to lead the Paladins offensively.

PJay Smith Jr (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.9 APG), who has had some great games, including Furman’s recent loss at Tulane as he finished the contest with a season-high 23 points. He’s shown the ability to score points in a hurry from the perimeter.

Like Pegues, Smith has a quick release and is a good ball-handler in the open floor. He comes from Lee University in Tennessee, where he was a two-time all-conference performer. He came to Furman as a 44.8% shooter from 3-point range as a sophomore. Smith is shooting 37.1% from 3-point range this season and has hit 30-for-81 from long range this season.

Supplementing Pegues and Smith Jr. in the backcourt is Carter Whitt (8.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG), who has transformed into a reliable shooter and scorer for the Paladins at certain points this season, including scoring all 20 off his points in the second half on a career-high scoring night en route to helping lead Furman to an 89-80 win at Coastal Carolina in the Myrtle Beach Invitational. He also had a career-high eight rebounds with six of those coming in the opening half against the Chanticleers.

Whitt has played in a much more controlled manner this season, and his confidence as both a shooter and a player at-large has been visibly apparent this season.

Furman’s front court is solid, and the best player underneath the basket is forward Alex Williams (14.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG), who the Paladins absolutely have to have step up and be present as a scorer. If Williams can become a reliable third scorer for the Paladins, it will make this team a title contender once again.

If his performances are inconsistent, then the Paladins may not meet that standard that they enjoyed in Asheville last March. Williams might be the most talented scorer on Furman’s roster, however, it seems at times he has trouble overcoming his negative moments within a game. Ultimately, that’s a learned evolution of a player as he matures in the game, as no one is immune to those negative moments within the game of basketball. Williams had a career-high 30 points in Furman’s win over Bob Jones, which followed up a 23-point effort at Arkansas.

Joining Williams as a big piece to the puzzle are senior center Garrett Hien (9.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who led the Paladins in scoring last time out against Anderson. Hien has become a more consistent scoring presence of late for the Paladins, which includes matching a career-high with 20 points in Saturday’s loss to Anderson.

Hien has posted double figure scoring performances in three of the past four outings for the Paladins, including consecutive performances, which saw him post 19 points and 11 rebounds against Presbyterian prior to his career-high matching 20-point effort against the Trojans this past Saturday.

Tyrese Hughey (6.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG), Ben VanderWal (6.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and Davis Molnar (3.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG) are a solid trio that has to also provide scoring support off the bench. Depth has never been an issue for the Paladins, but it’s been more of players finding a fit within the rotation.

Most would agree that Furman’s most-talented frontcourt player might be 6-foot-11 Cooper Bowser (4.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who is still learning the game and learning how to effectively defend without fouling.

Tonight’s game is one that should provide plenty of interest for both fanbases, and it has taken on even added interest given the health of the two teams entering SoCon play.

The Paladins didn’t get any favors from the league office for sure, having to go on the road to start league play for the first two games against two perennial league blue-bloods, however, no one is feeling sorry for the defending champs.