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UNC Asheville and Furman Square Off in Final Tune Up

Two programs on the rise in their respective conference get ready for one last game before the conference schedule continues.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Following a much-needed week off, Furman returns to the floor on Tuesday night, closing out non-conference play by traveling to UNC Asheville, as the Paladins take on the Bulldogs for their final non-conference game of the season, as the Paladins look to close out Southern Conference play.

The Paladins will look to return to Asheville and regain the magic it had last March, when Furman went all the way to the Southern Conference title game before losing to eventual champion and top overall seed Wofford in the Southern Conference title game. The 6-6 start by the Paladins has been a disappointing start to a season where Medved and many media pundits expected the Paladins to flourish for the first time in five years, however, there is still plenty of time to right the ship, with Southern Conference play not having begun as of yet, but the Paladins need to find their game in Asheville Tuesday night before opening Southern Conference play opens on Jan. 2, as VMI pays a visit to Timmons Arena.

Getting a win at Kimmel Arena against UNC Asheville won't be easy. The Bulldogs have established themselves as a major challenger in the Big South just about every season over the past seven years, and it appears that will once again be the case in 2015-16.

A win by Furman at Asheville would be the most impressive of the season for the Paladins, and would mark the second true road win of the season, with the Paladins having posted their first true road win at Appalachian State (79-70) earlier this season. The Paladins had just one true road win last season, and that was a 74-62 win at The Citadel, as Furman enters the UNCA game with a 5-30 record all-time under Niko Medved away from Timmons Arena, with two of those wins coming against The Citadel.

The non-conference road wins in Medved's third season as head coach have come against Presbyterian (W, 74-57/Dec. 9, 2013), Appalachian State (79-70/Nov. 17, 2015) and UC Davis (76-65/Dec. 30, 2013). Furman is now in its fifth season removed from a 22-win season, and since that historic campaign of 2010-11, Furman is just 11-54 away from Timmons Arena, including just 6-44 in its last 50 true road games.

Over the past five seasons, the Paladins have lost 25 out of 30 games on the road against non-conference. Of the 11 total wins on the road since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Paladins have two wins over teams with winning records, with the win over Appalachian State (1-0) in the second game of the season, and prior to that, you have to go back to Jan. 26, 2012, when the Paladins were 69-63 winners at College of Charleston, who entered that matchup with a 12-8 record.

The Paladins come having lost three of their last four games, and has struggled to shoot the basketball, especially from the perimeter, in each of those losses. UNC Asheville has played well at times during the preseason, and two of its most impressive wins have come against East Tennessee State (84-64) and Georgetown (79-73) in the pre-conference schedule. The Bulldogs have won four out of their five games inside the friendly confines of Kimmel Arena so far this season, with the lone loss in those five home outings coming in an 86-81 setback to Elon just before the Christmas Holidays. The Bulldogs are 1-1 against Southern Conference foes so far this season, with a 90-81 loss at Western Carolina to go with the win over East Tennessee State.

The Bulldogs are a team that should compete at the top of the Big South this season, and the Bulldogs came into the season picked to finish seventh in the 11-team league, as UNCA looks to improve on what was a 15-16 overall record last season, including a fifth-place finish in the Big South last season, as UNCA finished with a 10-8 record.

Though the Bulldogs and Paladins will share common opponents later on in the schedule this season, the two have not yet shared common foes in non-conference play to this point. The Bulldogs have won one Big South game so far this season, posting an impressive 80-60 win over Campbell in the friendly confines of Kimmel Arena back on Dec. 13.

Furman has had some great battles with UNC Asheville over the years, with the last meeting between the two rivals separated by about an 65-minute drive, the last meeting with the Bulldogs came down to the wire, when the two met in a non-conference battle at Timmons Arena during the 2010-11 season, which saw the Paladins win a 69-67 thriller at Timmons Arena.

In fact, the Paladins have won the last two meetings with UNC Asheville, as the Paladins also claimed a 72-66 win over the Bulldogs in the 2009-10 campaign. The Paladins will be facing the Bulldogs for the first time ever in Kimmel Arena, which opened during the 2010-11. The last time the Paladins took the floor against the Bulldogs, the two did battle in the Justice Center.

The Paladins, of course, will hope to re-capture the magic they had in the Altitude City last season, when the Paladins took their game to a different level, as a team that won just eight games during the regular-season went on to nearly claim the SoCon's NCAA bid before falling in the tournament to top-seeded Wofford, 67-64.

So far this season, those performances in Asheville at the Civic Center have appeared to be more of a Cinderella Story than a team ready to compete for a Southern Conference title in Medved's third season. However, a win Tuesday night could turn around the fortunes of the season for the Paladins, and it would make the Paladins 7-6, which would mark their best record through the non-conference portion of the schedule since the 2010-11 season.

But the reason Furman made such a run in Asheville last season was a defense that turned it on during the tournament, holding all four of its opponents in Asheville last season to less than 43% or less in making that run to the title last season.

With a deeper team this season, Furman would start the season strong, and at 5-3, with wins over NEC favorite Mount St. Mary's, Sun Belt member former SoCon member Appalachian State, and Big South members Liberty and Presbyterian, and it appeared at least on the surface that Furman was ready to take that next step as a program and live up to preseason expectations as a league title contender.

Despite recent shooting woes, the Paladins are converting a high percentage of their shots in the paint, holding strong at fifth in the league in field goal percentage, but it's been the lack of scoring from the perimeter and the Paladins have looked anemic from three-point land over the past three outings against Division I opposition, which has been one of the glaring problems in this recent stretch of struggles.

In its last three games against Division I foes, the Paladins have seemingly reverted back to their form in Medved's first season at the helm, which saw the Paladins finish 9-21 overall and win just three Southern Conference games. Though it seems like a negative, if the Paladins get their shooting woes fixed, they can be one of the most dangerous teams in the Southern Conference this season.

The only decent half of basketball turned in by the Paladins in the last six halves of basketball was the opening half of basketball against Dayton, which saw the Paladins trailing the RPI No. 8 Flyers by just two points at the break (31-29). But the second half of the game would see the Paladins revert back to their struggles against Gardner-Webb, which was a game in which the Paladins started to experience their major shooting woes, connecting on just 5-for-28 from three-point range in that contest en route to a 73-53 home loss to the Bulldogs.

Against Dayton, Furman was able to do several things well in the opening half of play, including out-rebounding the homestanding Flyers 17-15 in the opening half of play. The Paladins shot a decent 42.9% (12-for-28) from the field, and were 33.3% (4-for-12) from three-point land in the opening half. The second half saw the Flyers dominate the Paladins in nearly every phase of the game, including out-rebounding the Paladins an amazing 26-3 in the half, which allowed the Flyers to overcome that two rebound deficit at the break and post a 41-20 edge on the boards. The Paladins could only muster a 9-for-27 (33.3%) from the field in the second half, including going just 2-for-9 from three-point range (22.2%). The struggles would also come on the defensive end of the floor for Furman, which saw the Flyers connect non 44.7% (21-of-47) from the field and  42.9% (9-for-21) from three-point land.

In the last three games against Division I foes (Gardner-Webb, Dayton and Navy), the Paladins connected on just 14-of-70 shots from three-point range, which computes to a 20% clip from the perimter over the last three games.

Meanwhile, opponents have sizzled from beyond the arc in the past three against Furman, connecting on 24-of-52 from three-point land in the past three games. That converts to shooting clip of 46.1% from three-point range, and during that three-game span the Paladins have been outscore by 30 (72-42) from three-point land. All that has led to an average margin of defeat by a little over 17 PPG in each of the past three outings, which has included a pair of 20 point setbacks to Dayton and Gardner-Webb.

Furman's struggles from three-point land are similar to the ones it experienced last season in a three-game stretch against VMI, UNCG, ETSU and The Citadel. In those four games last season, the four Southern Conference foes combined to knock down a combined 63-of-109 from long-range from three-point land last season, while the Paladins connected on just 18-of-78 from three-point range in that very same four-game stretch.

Of course, those struggles would herald a strong turnaround for the Paladins down the stretch, which started the very next game after a 35-point setback at UINCG. In that four-game stretch last season, the Paladins scored no more than 59 points in any of the four games. The Paladins, of course, lost all four games, getting out-scored 189-54 from three-point land in that four-game stretch last season.

A Look at the Bulldogs:

UNC Asheville enters the contest with the Paladins having one of the more balanced offenses in the Big South Conference, entering the contest having four players averaging double figures.Head coach Nick McDevitt is in his third season leading the Bulldogs, but has had some adversity to deal with this season. McDevitt helped the Bulldogs to a 15-16 mark last season, but leading shooter Andrew Rowsey decided to transfer to Marquette. The native of Lexington, VA, was among the best shooter in mid-major basketball. The 86-81 loss to Elon last time out snapped a five-game winning streak for Asheville.

The Bulldogs enter the contest averaging 76.8 PPG as a team this season, and the Bulldogs are connecting on 47.3% (328-of-694) from the field this season, including a 31.1% (65-of-209) from three-point range this season. Leading the Bulldogs in scoring this season has been 6-5 guard Dwayne Sutton (12.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG), who has turned in some strong performances for the balanced offensive arsenal of shooters for the Bulldogs.

The last time out against Elon, Sutton was able to net 10 points against the Phoenix, marking his ninth game in double figures this season. His top two performances of the campaign came in back-to-back games against both Campbell and East Tennessee State, as he posted 18 points in both games.

The 6-5 Sutton is athletic and also a good ball-handler. From three-point land this season, Sutton has struggled, posting 7-of-25 from three-point range, but is connecting on solid 49.5% (50-of-101) from the field this season. He also has 13 steals per game, which ranks third on the team, and his six blocks rank second on the team. His 8.4 rebounds-per-contest ranks second in the Big South and has helped the Bulldogs lead the Big South in rebound margin this season (+5.8). What makes that stat even more amazing is the fact that the Bulldogs have no player taller than 6-5 in the starting rotation.

Joining Sutton in the backcourt this season will be both 6-3 wing guard David Robertson (6.2 PPG, 1.8 RPG), 6-5 Ahmad Thomas (8.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and 6-2 Kevin Vannatta (11.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 29 assists) to round out a four-guard offense for the Bulldogs The makeup of the team is similar to what the Paladins faced against Mount St. Mary's and Liberty earlier this season.

The Bulldogs have two of the same type players in terms of style of play in the backcourt, in Thomas and Sutton, with both being slashers and athletic, while the 6-3 Robertson and 6-2 Vannatta are streaky shooters, with the ability to score points in bunches. Roberston, howver, has struggled from the perimeter this season, hitting just 12-of-50 from three-point land this season.

Thomas has had four games in double figures this season, with the best of those performances coming with a 21-point outburst in the win over East Tennessee State, as he has connected on 9-of-13 from the field in maybe the most impressive win of the season for the Bulldogs. Thomas ranks second on the team in rebounding through the first 12 games this season, averaging 5.8 RPG.

Robertson started 30 of 31 games for the Bulldogs last season, but he is more of a role player and is not a player necessarily looking to score the basketball. He is not gun shy from shooting the three-ball, however, but it's not been a very effective season shooting the basketball from long-range for the junior guard from Cary, N.C. Last season, Robertson averaged 10.7 PPG and had 54 triples last season for UNCA.

Vannatta comes in playing the best basketball of any of UNCA's starting five heading into Tuesday night's contest against the Paladins, as he has scored in double figures in each of the past four games coming into the game. He has a total of seven double-figure games this season, highlighted by a 20-point effort in a loss at Western Carolina. The 20 points against the Catamounts was a career-high for Vannatta.

Vannatta comes into the contest as probably the most important player in the starting five for the Bulldogs, and he is leading the team in both assists (29) and steals (15) so far this season. The last time out against Elon, Vannatta tied for game-high scoring honors. He will run the point position for the Bulldogs

The starting five will be completed by one of the best big men in the Big South, in 6-4 Sam Hughes (10.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG). Hughes comes into the game with the Paladins with 17 blocks, and that total this season, which converts to an average of 1.4 BPG so far this season. His 10.5 PPG ranks fourth on the team in scoring, and is one of three players in the starting five averaging in double figures. Hughes posted his top game of the season with 18 points in a win over Drexel, while posting a season-best four blocks the last time out in a loss to Elon.

Two of the top players for the Bulldogs come off the bench are guard Dylan Smith (11.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG) and veteran forward Will Weeks (8.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG), as both add leadership and depth. Smith is the Bulldogs' top perimeter shooter this season, having connected on 26 triples so far in 2015-16, and Weeks enters the matchup with the Paladins having connected on 50% (38-of-76) from the field this season, which leads the team.

Weeks had a big game in the season opener against Tennessee, scoring a season-high 25 points on 10-of-18 from the field and 5-of-8 from the charity stripe in the four-point road loss to the Volunteers.The Bulldogs come into the matchup with the Paladins averaging 76.8 PPG, while opponents are averaging 66.2 PPG this season. The Bulldogs shoot 47.3% (328-of-694) from the field this season, while coming into the contest shooting at a 31.1% (65-of-209) from the beyond the arc this season. Te Bulldogs are allowing opponents to shoot 41.6% (286-of-687) from the field, and just 26.4% (63-of-239) from three-point land in 2015-16.

A Brief Look at the Paladins:

Niko Medved's Paladins enter the contest with much to improve on and they don't have much time to do the improving they need to do before Southern Conference play begins at the end of the week, with VMI visiting Timmons Arena.

Stephen Croone (13.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG) comes into the contest leading the Paladins in scoring, but it's been a bit of a rough start for the senior guard, as he came into the season with a thumb injury, which has seemed to affect his shooting, especially from the perimeter, this season.

He has worn a brace on his thumb in each of the 10 games he has played in this season. It has seemed to have affected his shooting from the perimeter the most this season, as he has connected on just 8-of-45 from from three-point range this season, which averages out to just 17.8% from three-point land this season.

Croone was of course the Paladins' leader from three-point range in terms of three-pointers made last season, as he connected on 55-of-158 triples last season, which computed to an average of 34.8% from three-point land this season. In the last game against Navy, Croone took his brace off midway through the second half, so it will be interesting to see if that brace will be removed for Tuesday night's contest against the Bulldogs.

Croone still has his explosiveness, and it's only a matter of time before he has one those games and starts knocking down perimeter shots and coach Medved is hoping that game is tonight against UNCA, while Bulldogs coach Nick McDevitt hopes that isn't the case for at least another game. Croone is coming off an 11-point performance last week against the Midshipmen, leading the Paladins in a game in which they scored a season-low 49 points.

Joining Croone in the backcourt will be John Davis III (5.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG) and Daniel Fowler (6.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG). Davis III was inserted into the starting rotation the last time out against Navy, replacing Devin Sibley (8.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG) in the starting five for the Paladins. Sibley has struggled the past few games to find his game, and he is another player that has not shot the ball well from the field over the past three games. Davis III has been impressive taking care of the basketball this season, with just four turnovers.

The sophomore guard, who was the SoCon Freshman of the Year last season, has scored just two points in the past two games. He did not score against Dayton and had only two points against Navy the last time out. In terms of shooting, Sibley, who was among the top 15 last season in three-point field goal percentage and started this season shooting the ball well from the perimeter, has connected on just 1-of-7 from three-point land over the past three games.

He and Croone have combined to go just 3-for-24 from three-point land over the past three games. Sibley has five double-figure scoring performances this season, and it is imperative that he and Croone find their shooting touch for the Paladins to be successful going forward. Sibley has 12 assists this season to go with 29 turnovers.

With Davis III in the lineup, it gives the Paladins a second ball-handler in the lineup along with Croone. Davis III has one double-figure effort this season, posting 10 points in the win over Bluefield. His start against Navy the last time marked his third of the season, as he also posted a pair of starts in the first two games, which Croone missed with an injury.

Fowler has been the most consistent in the backcourt for the Paladins, but he is a player that could do more offensively. He has been a consistent threat from the perimeter this season, and his 13 triples this season leads the team, having connected 13-of-34 from three-point range this season, which converts to an average of 38.2% from long-range on the season. Fowler has been the best defensive performer for the Paladins over the past two seasons, and will likely draw the assignment of trying to slow Dwayne Sutton.

The frontcourt rotation of Matt Rafferty (9.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG), Kris Acox (7.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Kendrec Ferrara (6.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG) have been hit or more miss this season in the paint for the Paladins. Rafferty has been unstoppable in some games, and in others, at least offensively, he has seemed to disappear.

Rafferty is still learning the college game, however, and it will take some time to get fully acclimated to the college game. Rafferty has done the other little things to get the job done for the Paladins when things haven't been good offensively. Rafferty is tied with Croone for the team lead in assists, with 29 helpers this season to go along with 13 steals, which ranks second on the team.