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Game Preview: Furman and Presbyterian Open the Regular Season

A pair of in-state rivals will kick off the 2015-16 season Friday night when Presbyterian visits Furman.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches: Niko Medved (20-43, 3rd yr at Furman); Gregg Nibert (400-379,27th yr at PC )
Last Time They Met: Furman 74, Presbyterian 59 (Dec. 7, 2013)
Series: Furman leads series 57-16
Players To Watch (Presbyterian):G-De'Sean Murray--2015 Big South Freshman of the Year
Players To Watch (Furman): G-Devin Sibley--2015 SoCon Freshman of the Year
2014-15 Records: Furman (11-22, 5-13 SoCon/10th); Presbyterian (10-22 overall, 6-12 Big South/6th)

Furman will open the 2015-16 college basketball season Friday night, when it welcomes in-state rival Presbyterian to Timmons Arena for a 7 p.m. contest.

Furman's basketball program enters the 2015-16 campaign with plenty of momentum following up on the remarkable finish the Paladins posted down the stretch last season, making a run to the conference tournament title game after entering the postseason conference playoff as the bottom seed in the SoCon--No. 10.

Though the Paladins won just eight regular-season games, the Paladins were a brash, young and exciting unit that would nearly turn the Altitude City of Asheville, N.C., upside down, going through No. 7 The Citadel (73-56), No. 2 Chattanooga (69-67) and No. 3 Mercer (52-49) to force a rematch with I-85 rival Wofford in the title game. The Paladins would drop another heartbreaker, with a 69-66 loss in the title game. Furman finished the season with an 11-22 overall mark and finished with a 5-13 mark in Southern Conference action.

The Paladins, which were selected to finish fifth in the SoCon pecking order by the Southern Conference media and coaches, returns all five starters, but will be without first-team all-league pick and leading scorer Stephen Croone in the season-opener, who is out with a minor preseason injury. Croone, a senior point guard from Atlanta, GA, could return to the Paladin lineup as soon as the next game, which will be on the road at Appalachian State.

While the Paladins will certainly miss the 17.3 PPG and 4.7 RPG provided by the experienced, veteran guard, the Paladins will introduce a deep backcourt into action for the season opener, and one that looked solid in a 90-57 exhibition win over North Greenville a couple of weeks ago.

In the absence of Croone, the point guard duties were handled by John Davis III, who in much the same fashion as last season, when Croone was forced to the sidelines late in the season with an abdominal strain in the regular-season finale against eventual league champion Wofford, responded with a strong performance against the Crusaders in the exhibition opener, leading four Paladins in double figures, with 17 points in the 33-point win over the Crusaders.

Last season without Croone against the Terriers, Davis III posted a career-high 20 points to lead the Paladins in what was a valiant effort, before eventually falling, 62-60, to the Terriers in the regular-season finale. Davis' confidence has been buoyed since that performance, and it is something that carried over into the Southern Conference Tournament and seemed to be an infectious confidence that spread throughout the team in Asheville, which saw the Paladins make that memorable run to the title game in Asheville.

The 20 points by Davis III last season remains his career-high performance, and entering Friday night's season opener, having posted double-figure scoring performances on three occasions last season.

He'll be joined in the backcourt by Devin Sibley (10.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG) and Daniel Fowler (7.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who were part of that star-studded freshman class a year ago, and both of the aforementioned players garnered postseason praise, with Sibley claiming the league's highest honor for a first-year player, as he was named the league's Freshman of the Year.

Sibley came on as the season progressed, and was one of two players to complete the season averaging in double figures, joining teammate and backcourt mate Stephen Croone in that respect. He tallied his season high of 29 points in a road loss at East Tennessee State.

Sibley was named had four regular-season performances in which he totaled 20 or more points. He finished the season connecting on a team-best 37.1% from three-point range last season, connecting on 36-of-97 trifectas last season. He also ranked second on the team from the charity stripe, connecting on 75% (96-of-128) from the line last season.

In in the exhibition win over North Greenville a couple of weeks ago, Sibley totaled nine points.

Fowler acts as the team's top on-the-ball defender, and is one of the best athletes on the Paladin roster. Like Sibley, he found himself as a SoCon All-Freshman selection at season's end.

The Paladins also have veteran leadership returning in the frontcourt, led by 6-9 Kendrec Ferrara and 6-8 Kris Acox, who were both instrumental in Furman's title run last season, will add the scoring punch underneath the basket.

Ferrara comes off a 2014-15 season, which saw him average 7.1 PPG and 4.8 RPG last season. In the exhibition win by the Paladins a couple of weeks ago, Ferrara added three points, going 1-for-2 from three-point land in the contest. Last season, Ferrara shot well as a post from three-point land, connecting on 15-of-47 from three point range, which saw him shoot 31.9% from three for the season.

Acox was the SoCon's leading rebounder last season, posting 7.5 boards-per-game. He was a key presence in the paint in the Southern Conference Tournament, and losing him early in the title game against Wofford to a broken foot hampered Furman's rebounding the remainder of the contest. He comes into the opener with the Blue Hose with six career double-doubles.

Acox had several strong performances down the stretch last season, including a 12-point, 10-rebound performance in a win over Western Carolina, a nine-point, nine-rebound effort in the stunning win over Chattanooga in the SoCon Tournament, and 12 points and 10 boards in the semifinal win in the SoCon Tournament over Wofford. In the exhibition opener against North Greenville, Acox showed little ill-effects of his foot injury, as he poured in 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the 90-57 win.

The Paladin bench is deep, especially in the backcourt, where Larry Wideman and backup point guard Jonathan Jean figure to draw most of the time on the court. Wideman comes off a 2014-15 season in which he posted 3.5 PPG and 1.7 RPG. He is a prolific shooter from the perimeter, but hit just 21 triples last season after leading the club from long range with 54 triples a couple of years ago. He came off the bench to add eight points, two assists and a steal a couple of weeks ago in the Paladins' exhibition win.

Jean will likely find himself in the backup role behind John Davis III (3.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG) in Friday night's opener, and he was extremely impressive in the homecoming scrimmage for the Paladins three weeks ago, as well as coming off the bench in the win over North Greenville. Though Jean does not look to score, when he does, he is very effective in doing so--both driving to the basket as well as from the perimeter.

Prior to an injury in high school, Jean was on the radar of Bob Huggins at West Virginia, and was recruited by numerous other mid-major programs. Jean hails from Tampa, FL, where he attended East Bay High School and was the team's all-time leader in points and steals.

Andrew Brown from Travelers Rest High School will also see plenty of time in the backcourt off the bench for the Paladins. In the exhibition opener against North Greenville, Brown tallied 14 points to finish as one of four Furman Paladins in double figures. Brown is a versatile player, with good ball-handling skills as well as the ability to step out and hit the outside shot.

In the frontcourt, the two primary reserves off the bench will be 6-7 Geoff Beans and 6-8 freshman Matt Rafferty. Beans was a SoCon All-Freshman pick last season, and he was second on the team in three-pointers made (46 triples), despite missing the first four games due to suspension. Beans has a more mature inside-outside game this season, adding even more versatility to the Paladin frontcourt.

Rounding out what should be the primary rotation for the opener against the Blue Hose will be Rafferty. The native of Hinesdale, Ill, might have been the most impressive of Furman's newcomers in the exhibition a couple of weeks ago, as he posted an impressive 16 points on a perfect 6-for-6 from the field.

One area the Paladins will need to shore up from their exhibition win is free throw shooting, as the Paladins connected on just 61.9% (13-for-21) from the charity stripe. The Paladins won down the stretch last season because of stellar play on the defensive end of the floor, which included holding Mercer to 19% shooting from the field in the second half in the SoCon semifinal win. Last season, the Paladins ranked fourth in the SoCon in scoring defense (68.0 PPG) and seventh in field goal percentage defense (44.9%).

A Look at The Blue Hose:

Presbyterian, which is coached by the legendary Gregg Nibert, has high hopes for the 2015-16 season, and return one of the best players in the Big South Conference, in 6-5 forward DeSean Murray, who was one of the key cogs for the Blue Hose last season.

Nibert, who is one of the best people in the sport of college basketball for what he does for children victimized by abuse, is also considered one mid-major college basketball finest coaches. Last season, he registered his 400th victory as a head basketball coach, leading Presbyterian to a late-season 80-69 upset win over the Cliff Ellis-led and Big South title favorite Coastal Carolina Chanticleers on what was Senior Night at the Templeton Center.

Jordan Downing, who ended his career with an outstanding three years with the Blue Hose after transferring in from Davidson, was the Blue Hose leading scorer last season, averaging 16.6 PPG as a senior. He was a prolific shooter from the perimeter, and that's the area where the Blue Hose will miss his presence the most this season.

The other player the Nibert must replace this season will be center Will Truss, who was a reliable post presence, and combined with Downing to contribute to score over 800 points last season, as the duo contributed a combined 25.4 PPG to the Blue Hose offense last season.

PC finished the season with a 10-22 record, including a 6-12 record in conference play, as the Blue Hose finished eighth in the 11-team Big South last season. Coming into the 2015-16 season, the Blue Hose were selected to finish

This season, the fortunes for PC will rest with the 6-5 guard Murray, who is the leading returning scorer for the Blue Hose heading into the season, posting an average of 15.7 PPG to go along with 8.2 RPG, which also leads the team. Murray is a game-changer for the Blue Hose, and he will be one of the best athletes on the floor each time PC takes the college basketball hardwood this season.

Murray is one of three returning starters back for the Blue Hose heading into the 2015-16 season, and he'll be joined by guards Markus Terry (8.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG) and Davon Bell (2.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG). Bell, Terry and Murray will make up an experienced, talented backcourt, and one that is one of the more underrated units in the Big South heading into the 2015-16 season.

The real key for the Blue Hose this season will be finding a consistency underneath the basket, and if they can do that, PC could certainly be the surprise package in the Big South this season. Returning to the fold as the key veterans in the paint will be Ed Drew (4.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Reuben Arroyo-Felix (3.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG).

Drew and Arroyo-Felix will be the veterans to be relied upon for Nibert this season, and the main newcomers to keep an eye on Friday night are 6-6 junior transfer John Majors II 6-9 freshman center Austin Venable is the most talented of those introduced into the fold. Majors II, who transferred in from Baltimore Community College, was strong in the overtime exhibition win over Mars Hill Monday night, posting a team-leading 22 points and 15 boards off the bench to lead the Blue Hose.

Matchup To Watch: Keep an eye on the matchup between Furman's Daniel Fowler and PC's De'Sean Murray, as it will be the Paladins' best defensive player against one of the Big South's top scorers. Both are sophomores and coming off strong seasons, which garnered All-Freshman praise in their respective conferences, with Murray named the Big South's Freshman of the Year.

Did You Know:
Presbyterian head coach Gregg Nibert spent his time learning under former Presbyterian and Furman head coach Butch Estes from 1984-89. Nibert originally joined the Furman staff as a part-time assistant prior to Gene Davis' final season as the Paladins' head coach in 1984-85 before staying on staff when Butch Estes was hired in 1985.

Both Estes and Nibert, who had been together in Estes' previous stint as a head coach at Presbyterian (1981-84), leading the Blue Hose to a 57-35 mark in three seasons, were now reunited on the same staff again, with Estes the head coach, and he named Nibert as his top assistant. Nibert would spend four seasons in Greenville with Estes before accepting the head coaching job at PC on April 26, 1989.

Another Estes assistant has gone on to do great things as a head coach in the Big South, as Barclay Radebaugh has helped Charleston Southern be a consistent contender in that mid-major league since taking over a decade ago.

Who Wins: Furman should win this basketball game, as it is the more talented team. However, talent doesn't always equate on the scoreboard in this sport like it does on the college gridiron. While Furman captured the attention of many with their late-season run in the conference tournament last year, the fact remains the Paladins still only won eight regular-season games. That being said, expect the Paladins to come out with a point to prove and win the opener even without Stephen Croone.

Furman 68, Presbyterian 60