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Game Preview: Charlotte, Furman meet in Battle 4 Atlantis match up

Stephen Croone's Return Highlights Battle 4 Atlantis Opener For Paladins.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches: Niko Medved (22-43, 3rd year at Furman); Mark Price (0-2, 1st year at Charlotte).
Series: Charlotte leads 4-3
Player To Watch (Furman): G--Stephen Croone (17.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG in 2014-15)
Player To Watch (Charlotte): G-Anthony Ogbueze (13.0 PPG, 0.5 RPG)
Records: Furman (2-0, 0-0 SoCon); Charlotte (0-2, 0-0 C-USA)

Furman is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since Niko Medved's first season in charge of the Paladin basketball program.

Following a 79-70 win at Appalachian State on Tuesday night, the Paladins stay in the state of North Carolina taking on the Charlotte 49ERS in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament at Halton Arena on Thursday night.

The 49ERS and Paladins will be squaring off on the hardwood for the first time since the 1994-95 season that the two have competed against each other on the college basketball hardwood.

Led by All-America candidate Jarvis Lang, who posted 24 points, the 49ERS were able to post a 70-52 win in Greenville. The clash between the two programs, separated by only a 90-minute drive up I-85, marks just the eighth all-time meeting in the series. The 49ers hold a 4-3 all-time series edge, having won four of the last five meetings between the two. Furman last claimed victory in the 1983-84 season, claiming a 77-71 win at the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Greenville. The Paladins have never at Charlotte (0-2).

The 49ers are under new leadership, as former Georgia Tech and Cleveland Cavaliers standout Mark Price is in his first season handling the head coaching responsibilities in the Queen City.

It is a bit surprising that these two programs haven't faced each other more often given the close proximity, and it is an important meeting between the two on Thursday night.

The 49ERS have opened the season with a pair of losses. The Charlotte program is one that is proud and has posted an outstanding tradition of success over the years.

Players like Jarvis Lang (1991-95), DeMarco Johnson (1994-98) and Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell (1973-77) are just a trio of what has been a program that has produced litany of big names in the history of college basketball.

The Charlotte program is one that is noted for posting the seventh-largest comeback in NCAA history, overcoming a 25-point deficit in a game against Tennessee (trailed 53-27) with 15:04 remaining in the game before producing the miraculous comeback.

Charlotte enjoyed its most success as a program during the Jeff Mullins (1986-96) and Bobby Lutz (1999-2010) eras, winning over half of the program's 799 games, as the two head coaches combined to win 400 games, with Lutz winning a school-record 218 games in his 11 years at the helm, while Mullins posted 182 wins in his decade of service to the Charlotte basketball program.

To give you an idea of how successful the Charlotte basketball program has been, it hasn't posted back-to-back losing seasons since 1984-85 and 1985-86. The 49ERS were 14-18 last season, and have opened the 2015-16 season with losses to both East Carolina (88-74) and Elon (85-74).

A Look at the Paladins:

Furman comes into Thursday night's contest looking to improve to 3-0 for the first time since the start of the 2009-10 season. Dating back to the end of the 2014-15 season, the Paladins come in having won six out of their last eight games.

The news that greets the Paladins as they enter game three of the 2015-16 season is that it should mark the return of Stephen Croone, who missed the first two games of the season with a thumb injury. With him back and cleared to play, it will make the Paladins an even more dangerous team in the Southern Conference.

The Paladins were able to get a pair of important wins without Croone in the first couple of games, as the Paladins were able to post a 63-53 win over Presbyterian to open the season, and then followed up that win over the Blue Hose to open the campaign with an impressive 79-70 road win at Appalachian State the last time out.

Croone brings a different element into the fold for the Paladins, and that's the ability to score from a variety of different ways, which includes off dribble penetration, from the perimeter, as well as off offensive rebounds, as the native of Covington, GA is one of the premier rebounding guards in the Southern Conference.

The 6-2 senior point guard enters the season as a leading candidate for the Lou Henson Award, which is given to the nation's best mid-major baskrtball player.

Croone comes off a 2014-15 season which saw him average 17.3 PPG and 4.5 RPG last season. Croone has been practicing all week and has looked good in practice. He will play with a brace on his thumb, so it will be interesting to see how and if it affects his shot at all.

Croone enters his senior season with 1,373 points, and currently needs just 27 points to surpass former Paladin Robby Bostain for 19th on the program's all-time scoring ledger.

The senior from Atlanta also was key on the defensive end of the floor, as he completed the campaign by leading the club in steals (55) as well as dishing out 80 assists, which ranked second on the club.

In his junior season of 2014-15, Croone would find himself in double figures in 29 of the 31 games he saw action in last season, including all four games in the Southern Conference Tournament. Western Carolina and East Tennessee State--both on the road--which would hold the talented guard from the outskirts of Atlanta to less than double figures last season. Both saw the Paladins fall in defeat.

Croone bested the 20-point mark in nine games last season for the Paladins, and scored 30 or more points twice, with a season-high 33 points coming in the Paladins' SoCon-opening win over Samford. Croone had 31 points in an overtime loss to Chattanooga, which marked the other time in which he found himself besting the 30-point plateau a second time in SoCon play.

While Croone has been sidelined with an injury, the point guard position has been tag-teamed by John Davis III (5.5 PPG, 1.0 APG) and Jonathan Jean (4.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG). Davis III, who suffered a concussion just prior to the season, took another shot to the head late in the win over Appalachian State in the last outing, however, he should be good to go against Charlotte on Thursday night.

Davis III, who is in his sophomore season, comes off a freshman campaign which saw him really start to gain confidence as the Paladins hit the stretch run of the season. He scored a career-high 20 points in a last season's 62-60 loss in the regular-season finale to eventual Southern Conference champion Wofford.

In the season opener against Presbyterian and starting in place of the injured Stephen Croone this season, Davis posted a solid night, as he finished with 17 points. Davis III is a solid perimeter threat, and has connected on 2-of-3 shots from long-range so far this season.

Jean has looked very poised for a true freshman, and has been solid off the bench replacing Davis. In the last outing against Appalachian State, Jean enjoyed the best game of his young career with seven points, which included knocking down his first triple of his career. Jean is cerebral, quick and will likely have a chance to challenge to set Furman's all-time steals record.

Jean did turn the ball over three times last time out, but in the opener against Presbyterian dished out three assists, including two at a crucial point in the second half, allowing Furman to assume control of a tight game.

The two players slated to round out the backcourt as starters are a pair of players that were among the top rookies in the SoCon last year, in 6-2 Devin Sibley (11.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG) and 6-4 Daniel Fowler (9.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Sibley, who was the 2015 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year, struggled as a scoring presence in the opener, posting just four points and an assist.

But in the second game against the Mountaineers, Sibley showed why he was the SoCon's Freshman of the Year in 2015, as he posted 18 points, which included a 4-of-5 night from the perimeter. For the sophomore out of Karns High School in Knoxville, his four triples in the win over Appalachian State matched his career-high which he also accomplished in a loss at Mercer last January. Sibley was the Paladins' top three-point shooter in terms of percentage, connecting on better than 37% from long range last season.

Fowler brings athleticism and is the Paladins' version of Bruce Bowen. The sophomore from Acworth, GA, is Furman's top on-the-ball defender, and oftentimes draws the leading scorer from the opponent as an assignment heading into each game.

The talented athlete has started all 35 games he has played in during his career, and down the stretch last season, he started to assert himself more as an offensive threat. In fact, Fowler might be the most-improved offensive threat on the Paladin roster from a year ago.

In his first season with the Paladins, Fowler showed that he is the most versatile player on the Paladin roster, possessing the ability to play as many of four positions in the lineup. Fowler excels at passing the basketball, completing the 2014-15 season with a team-leading 83 assists.

Against the Mountaineers, Fowler posted 10 points and dished out three assists and grabbed five boards. Fowler connected on a clutch three late in the game against the Mountaineers, and finished 4-of-6 from the field. He's an improved perimeter threat, coming off a 2014-15 season was saw him go 22-of-69 from three.

Off the bench, the Paladins will look to senior Larry Wideman (3.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG) and freshman Andrew Brown (4.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who have logged quality minutes in the first couple of games this season. Wideman, who has 111 three-point field goals in his career--more than any other Paladin--has struggled out of the gate shooting the ball this season, having gone just 1-for-6 from three-point land in the first two games, including going 1-of-5 in the season-opening loss to Appalachian State.

Brown, a 6-4 wing guard from nearby Travelers Rest High School, is a crafty ball-handler, strong defender and solid perimeter shooter. Brown scored four points in the opener against PC and posted five points, two boards, three assissts and a pair of steals in 22 minutes of floor time the last time out against Appalachian State. Brown is probably the most poised of the new crop of talented players head coach Niko Medved has added this season, and leads the team with a total of three steals in his first two collegiate games.

Furman's frontcourt will be manned by a pair of veterans and a player that might be the SoCon's top freshman coming off the bench. Senior Kendrec Ferrara (7.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and junior Kris Acox (5.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG) have combined to start 97 games in their Paladin careers, while 6-9 freshman Matt Rafferty (18.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is off to an outstanding start to his career, which has seen him post team-leading scoring performances in both games.

Ferrara is an impact player on both ends of the floor, as a scorer in a variety of different ways on the offensive end, as well as one of the league's top shot-blockers on the defensive end of the floor. Ferrara had a big first half last time out in the win over Appalachian State, as he posted nine of his 12 points in the win over the Mountaineers in the opening half of play.

Ferrara finished the game 5-of-9 from the field, including 2-for-2 from three-point land and registered one of the team's two blocks. Last season, Ferrara led the Paladins 41 blocks, and with his two blocks this season, has hit the century mark on the nose for his career.

Acox was of course the SoCon's top rebounder last season, and has gotten off to a strong start this season. He scored 11 points and grabbed 10 boards in the season opening win over Presbyterian, and though he did not score the last time out against Appalachian State, Acox was able to dish out a team-best four assists in the win.

Acox is big, physical and athletic, and as long as he can stay out of foul trouble, he is one of the SoCon's best all-around big men. Acox also registered a block in the opener against Presbyterian.

Off the bench, the Paladins will have the luxury of bringing in Geoff Beans (2.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG). Beans can score points in a hurry and is a proficient three-point shooter, and he has also developed more as an all-around player this season for the Paladins.

Rafferty, a 6-9 native of Hinsdale, Ill, has been among the top freshman players in the Southern Conference this season. In the opener against PC, he posted 17 points and 10 boards to lead the Paladins to the 10-point win, while in his second game of his college career, he posted 16 of his 19 points in the second half, including a 9-for-10 effort at the charity stripe to help the Paladins to a nine-point win at former SoCon rival Appalachian State on Tuesday night.

A Look at Charlotte:

Charlotte enters the contest with an 0-2 record on the season and the 49ERS are under the direction of a new head coach, in former Georgia Tech and Cleveland Cavalier star Mark Price.

Charlotte opened the season with a setback against former Southern Conference member Elon, dropping an 85-74 contest to the Phoenix on the home floor, and then went on the road where it dropped a contest at East Carolina, with an 88-74 setback on the road.

The 49ERS were 14-18 last season, and have struggled the past couple of seasons in Conference USA, which is among the top mid-major college leagues in NCAA Division I.

The 49ERS are a relatively young basketball team, and one thing the 49ERS were able to do last season was score points, leading C-USA in team scoring, averaging 72.4 PPG. Charlotte finished tied for 11th in C-USA last season, with a 7-11 conference mark.

With the change in head coach, not only did the 49ERS have to replace the school's all-time assists leader--Pierria Henry, it also had two supremely talented sophomores transfer out of the program, as both Torin Dorn (12.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and Keyshawn Woods (8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG) both transferred out of the program, and both would have been great foundational pieces for Price to work with in his first season at the helm.

The 49ERS have just one senior listed as a starter in the starting five, with 6-8 redshirt senior Bernard Sullivan (12.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG) returning to the fold. Sullivan is a player that is coming off a season which saw him average 4.8 PPG and 2.7 RPG, as he came off the bench as a reserve in the frontcourt for Charlotte. He will give the 49ERS a solid scoring presence in the paint, as well as being the team's top man on the boards.

Two of Sullivan's three double-digit scoring games for Charlotte have come this season, as he posted 13 points in the opener against Elon and followed that up by posting 11 points and eight boards against East Carolina. Sullivan transferred into Charlotte from Clemson a couple of years ago.

Joining him underneath the basket will be 7-0 center Benas Griciunas (2.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG) from Lithuania. In keeping with the transfer theme, Griciunas came to Charlotte from Auburn, and will be playing just his third game for the Niners Thursday night against Furman. During his time at Auburn in the 2013-14 season, Griciunas played in 12 games, with one start for the Tigers. He averaged 2.0 PPG and 1.8 RPG. Griciunas had four points in the season opener against Elon, and was held scoreless against the Pirates the last time out. He'll cause matchup problems because of his size.

The backcourt for the 49ERS is comprised of three talented guards, led by University of Florida transfer Braxton Ogbueze (13.0 PPG, 0.5 RPG). Ogbueze is a 6-1 point guard, who came into the season with some big shoes to fill after the graduation of Henry.

Ogbueze is a good ball-handler, as well as being a proficient shooter from the perimeter. In his first season with the Niners last season, it was a breakout season for the Florida transfer, as he posted 15 double-digit games and two 20-point games.

He was solid from beyond the arc last season, connecting on 49-of-121 from downtown, which is converts to an impressive 40.5% from three-point land. Additionally, Ogbueze is an excellent free throw shooter, connecting on 82.9% (63-for-76) a year ago.

So far this season, Ogbueze posted nine points in the season-opener against Elon, and followed that up with 17 points and four assists in the loss to East Carolina. Ogbueze is 6-for-11 from three-point range on the young season.

Joining Ogbueze as starters in the backcourt for Thursday night's contest will be both Ridell Camridge (11.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Andrien White (15.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG).

White is a freshman and has been among the 49ERS' most impressive players this season, and the Richmond, VA product enjoyed a breakout performance the last time out against East Carolina, as the 6-3 guard posted 21 points in the loss.

White went 4-for-7 from three-point range in that breakout performance. He'll be a player that the Paladins must be keenly aware of from the perimeter Thursday night. White also posted 10 points in the opener against Elon.

Camridge, a sophomore transfer from Cloud County Community College, was solid in his debut for the 49ERS against Elon, posting 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field. Camridge also got it done on the defensive end, posting three steals in the loss to the Phoenix. Camrige was also 3-for-4 from three-point land in the loss to Elon, however, the last time out at East Carolina, went just 1-for-6 from three. He is the best rebounding guard for the 49ERS, and might be the most versatile backcourt player for Charlotte.

The three main players off the bench for the 49ERS are a guards Curran Scott (2.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Jon Davis (5.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG), while Chapel Hill native Anthony Vanhook (8.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) is one of the best athletes on the roster and he is instant offense off the bench.

Did You Know:

Charlotte's top assistant coach, Houston Fancher, was once the head coach at Appalachian State during the Mountaineers' days as a Southern Conference member. Fancher led the Mountaineers' basketball program from 2000-09, and prior to joining Buzz Peterson's staff in Boone, Fancher was just up the road from Furman's campus in Tigerville, S.C., as the head coach of the North Greenville Crusaders from 1992-95.

Fancher helped lead the Mountaineers to their most wins in school history, as the Apps went 25-8 in 2006-07, which included wins over VCU, Virginia, Vanderbilt and Central Florida at the San Juan Shootout, claiming the tournament crown.

A heartbreaking loss in an overtime game to the College of Charleston in the SoCon semifinals meant the Mountaineers bid to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years came to a crashing hault. Still, the Mountaineers did garner the attention of the NIT, and were selected as one of the 32 participants in that prestigious postseason tournament. The Apps bowed out in the opening round with a loss to Ole Miss.

Matchup To Watch:

The matchup to watch Thursday night will be the one between the two point guards, in Furman's Stephen Croone and Charlotte's Anthony Ogbueze. Croone likely won't start, but he will have an effect on this game and with him, the Paladins are a different basketball team.

Who Wins:

Halton Arena is certainly not an easy place to garner a win, sporting a great basketball atmosphere and tradition. However, in what is a rebuilding year, it figures to be a great opportunity for Furman to come away with a win over a C-USA program. With Croone's return Thursday night, the stars seem to be aligning for a 3-0 start for the ‘Dins.

Furman 76, Charlotte 71