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Furman ready for Southern Conference battle with UNCG Tuesday night

Furman looks to erase a 35-point loss late last season from its memory when it faces UNCG tonight.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

GREENSBORO, N.C.--Furman travels to UNC Greensboro for its first Southern Conference road game of the season, as the Paladins face off against a Greensboro team that handed Furman its worst conference defeat last season, as the Paladins dropped an 84-49 decision at the Greensboro Coliseum late last February.

Furman was able to avenge one of its largest Southern Conference defeats of a year ago, as the Paladins opened SoCon play at home on Saturday afternoon, posting a lopsided 85-57 win over VMI at Timmons Arena--the same VMI team that handed the Paladins a 34-point setback in the previous meeting between the two, as the Keydets used 24 triples to hand Furman a 93-59 loss in Lexington in mid-February of last season.

The Paladins were able to control every facet of Saturday's Southern Conference opener against the Keydets, including being able to knock down 51.7% in the opening half of play, which led to a 42-27 halftime edge, and then were able to complete the game by shooting the ball at a 48.2% clip for the game, while limiting the Keydets to just 38.5% from the field in the contest. The Paladins also forced 19 turnovers and held the Keydets to just 18.8% (3-for-20) shooting from three-point land in the contest.

Three-point shooting, which had previously been a struggle for the Paladins, was better than it had been in recent games, as the Paladins knocked down 9-of-24 shots from long range for a 37.5% clip from long-range for the game. Meanwhile, the Paladins were able to limit Southern Conference leading scorer Q.J. Peterson to 11 points under his scoring average coming into the game, as Furman was able to limit the senior guard to just nine points. He came into the contest averaging 20.2 PPG.

The Paladins got a team-leading 22 points from senior guard Stephen Croone, while Kris Acox finished with one of the best games of his junior season, posting 15 points, six rebounds and four steals. Eleven of Acox's 15 points came in the opening half of play.

UNCG, meanwhile, opened Southern Conference play just up Interstate 85 from Furman at Wofford, where it dropped an 87-76 decision to the defending Southern Conference champions. The loss was the fifth-straight for the Spartans, who were picked to finish sixth in the preseason SoCon Coaches Poll and eighth by the SoCon Media, and the Spartans return to the friendly confines of the Greensboro Coliseum for the first time since an 84-61 win over Belmont Abbey on Dec. 12.

The Spartans' strength underneath the basket showed up against the Terriers in the Southern Conference opener for both clubs, as the Blue and Gold scored 48 of their 76 points in the contest in the paint, out-scoring the Terriers by 30 (48-18) in the paint in the contest, however, the Spartans couldn't overcome the 11 triples hit by the Terriers, as UNCG connected on just five.

Leading the Spartans in the loss in their Southern Conference opener was RJ White, who led four Spartans in double figures with 19 points, as he finished the night going 9-of-12 from beyond the three-point line, and was a perfect 1-of-1 from beyond the three-point arc. Diante Baldwin finished with 14 points, as he went 6-of-9 from the field and was a perfect 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. Kayel Locke and Marvin Smith rounded out the Spartans in double figures, posting 13 points apiece in the road loss to open conference play.

White's team-high 19 points came in just 23 minutes of court action, as he was limited due to foul trouble throughout the night. The Spartans completed the night connecting on 52.5% of its shots from the field, while limiting the Terriers to 50.0% shooting from the field in the contest. The Spartans, however, connected on just 5-of-17 from beyond the three-point line, as the Spartans were held to just 29.4% from beyond the arc in the loss.

Furman will face a much different challenge when it takes the floor against the Spartans than it did against VMI in the opener. Though the Spartans no longer have all-conference guard Tevon Saddler, it has an experienced core of players that is playing under the same system. VMI had a veteran group of players when it visited Timmons Arena on Saturday, but they were a unit very much still learning a vastly different system under the Keydets' new head coach, Dan Earl.

The Spartans do several things well coming into the matchup against the Paladins, and it will be one of the tougher matchups Furman's two big men will face this season, in UNCG's Kayel Locke and RJ White. They certainly were a handful for the Paladins last season in their 34-point loss to the Spartans in the Greensboro Coliseum, as the duo combined for 32 points last season, with White contributing a team-high 18 points, while Locke chipped in with 14.

The matchup will mark the 27th clash on the college basketball hardwood between the two, with the series all knotted at 13-apiece.

A Quick Look At Last Sesason's Two Meetings Between Furman and UNCG

Game 1: FURMAN 71, UNCG 64 (Jan. 8, 2015/Timmons Arena)
What Happened: GREENVILLE, S.C.--In the first meeting between the two teams last season, Furman would post a hard-fought, 71-64, win over the Spartans at Timmons Arena, as the Paladins were paced by a career-high effort from Devin Sibley, who posted 21 points in the Paladin win. Sibley posted all 21 of his points in the second half, as he helped the Paladins rally from a 14-point deficit to down UNCG for its second Southern Conference win of the season, as the Paladins improved to 4-10 overall and 2-2 in SoCon play. Sibley was one of four Paladins in double figures in the contest, as the eventual Southern Conference Freshman of the Year would be joined in double digits by Geoff Beans, who added 15 points, while Kris Acox and Stephen Croone added 11 and 10 points to round out the Paladins in double figures in the win. With UNCG leading 47-33 and under 14:30 remaining in the contest, Sibley would come to life for the Paladins, as he helped lead the Paladins back during a crucial 22-8 run in the second half, which started by his triple, as he scored 13 of the 22 points during the strong second half run by the Paladins to overtake the Spartans. His wild driving layup would tie the game, 55-55, with 6:48 remaining. Though Croone posted only 10 points, he provided what might have been the shot of the game, as his triple from the right wing helped stake Furman to a five-point, 62-57, lead with 4:09 remaining. Geoff Beans would also add a pair of free throws after Tevon Saddler was whistled for a technical foul, capping what was a five-point possession for the Paladins. Both teams shot the ball at a 42% clip from the field, as the Paladins went 42.6% from the field, while the Spartans were 42.2& from the field. UNCG was led offensively by Kayel Locke's 16 points, while Saddler and RJ White added 14 and 11 points, respectively. The Paladins held the Spartans to just 4-of-16 shooting from three-point range in the win.

Game 2: UNCG 84, FURMAN 49 (Feb. 23, 2015/Greensboro Coliseum)
What Happened: GREENSBORO, N.C.--In the second meeting between the two teams last season, Furman was simply out-classed by a hot-shooting UNC Greensboro club, which handed Furman its worst Southern Conference loss of the season, as the Spartans posted an 84-49 win over the Paladins inside the friendly confines of the Greensboro Coliseum. The game was never really in doubt, and it was an exact opposite of the first clash between the two, as the Spartans were red-hot from three-point range, canning nine of their first 11 shots from beyond the arc en route to its largest win over Furman in the history of the series, as UNCG handed the Paladins an 84-49 setback at the Greensboro Coliseum. Five players finished in double figures for the Spartans in the big home victory, led by RJ White, who posted 12 of his 18 points on a career-high four three-point field goals in the win, while he would be joined in double figures by four other Spartans in the win.

Previewing The Spartans

Furman will meet a UNCG team that is reeling a bit from a long losing streak, but will benefit from returning to the friendly confines of the Greensboro Coliseum, and the Paladins will need to play their A game in order to get a win on the road in a place that hasn't yielded many to SoCon foes over the years.

Before Tevon Saddler decided to quit team just prior to the season, many considered the Spartans to be a preseason dark horse in the Southern Conference. The Spartans are still very much a danger in the Southern Conference race, and should they be able to get consistent scoring out of their backcourt to make up for the loss of Saddler.

The Spartans are under the direction of fifth-year head coach Wes Miller. The Spartans favor a very high-octane style of basketball under Mitchell, and though the Spartans are not like The Citadel under Baucom, they are a team that will resemble others in the league, like Chattanooga or Samford, which are two upcoming foes for the Paladins, although the Spartans rank near the bottom of the league in scoring offense, averaging 69.4 PPG. That ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the SoCon in scoring offense.

The Spartans have shot the ball well, however, from the field and from three-point range this season, ranking sixth in the league in field goal percentage ofense (42.8%) and fourth in the league in three-point field goal percentage (34.1%). The Spartans are a team that has extremely good shot selection, and the get a lot of transition buckets. UNCG also gets easy looks underneath the basket due to its talented to post players.

Saddler is gone and Nicholas Paulos is no longer around, but the core group of veterans are still around in the Gate City, but the Spartans have had the luxury of getting back some players that were injured last season, as the 2014-15 campaign was one that saw the Spartans ravaged by injuries.

The Spartans are widely regarded as having one of the best frontcourts in the Southern Conference, and both Kayel Locke (11.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and RJ White (11.7 PPG, 6.8 RPG). Locke and White have routinely had good games against the Paladins during their respective careers, particularly last season.

With White's size and soft touch around the basket, as well as his ability to step out and hit the occasional jumper will extend the defense. White, a 6-8, 280-lb redshirt junior forward has started 11 of 13 games this season for the Spartans in 2015-16, and has lived up to his preseason All-SoCon plaudits so far this season, entering the matchup with the Paladins ranking third in the SoCon in both rebounding (6.8 RPG) and field goal percentage (59.0%). In scoring, White's 11.7 PPG ranks him 14th in the league in scoring.

White has scored in double figures in 10 of 13 games he has played in so far this season, including the last time out against Wofford, leading the Spartans with 19 points to tie a season-high in points. White also posted 19 points in his first game of the season against Chowan, posting 19 points in a win over Chowan.

Against the Paladins last season in a pair of games, White had two outstanding performances. In Furman's 71-64 win in Greenville last season, White posted 11 points and five boards before fouling out of the contest, while having a monster game against the Paladins after in the Spartans' 84-49 win over the Paladins late last season at the Greensboro Coliseum, as he finished with a team-leading 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, including a perfect 4-of-4 shooting from three-point land. So far this season as a perimeter threat, White has knocked down just 3-of-12 of his long-range efforts.

Joining White underneath will of course be the veteran Locke, who has started all 14 games for the Spartans this season, ranking just behind White in scoring average so far this season, and has posted seven double-figure scoring performances, including the last time out against Wofford, finishing with 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field, while also posting four boards. Locke enjoyed his best game of the season against Wake Forest, posting a career-high 25 points in a narrow setback to Wake Forest. In the two games against the Paladins last season, Locke posted 16 and 14 points, respectively, against the Paladins in a pair of solid performances against the Paladins last season.

The 6-5 forward has shot the ball at a 43.1% (66-of-153) from the field so far this season, and has connected on 10-of-35 from long-range in 2015-16, which converts to an average of 28.6% from three-point land this season. The Spartans will employ three guards in its backcourt, and without Saddler leading the way, the trio has taken on a different dynamic this season.

The one player that has stepped up and assumed the leadership role in the backcourt this season have been Diante Baldwin (10.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.3 APG) and Francis Alonso (11.1 PPG, 1.4 APG). Baldwin started to come into his own in the backcourt for the Spartans last season, and as the season went on, he found his role in the UNCG offense.

This season, he finds himself fourth on the team in scoring, and ranks third on the team in assists-per-game (4.3 APG). Baldwin, a 6-0 junior point guard, has played well as of late for the Spartans, posting double figure scoring performances in four of the last five games, including last time out against Wofford, which saw him post 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and a perfect 2-for-2 from three-point range.

He also contributed six assists and a pair of steals in the win at Wofford. Baldwin's best game of the season came in a loss at High Point, as he finished with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting from field.

Against Furman, Baldwin posted 11 points, dished out five assists and recorded a pair of steals in UNCG's resounding 84-49 win over Furman. In the game in Greenville, which saw the Spartans fall, 71-64, Baldwin registered seven points, five assists and five rebounds before fouling out of the contest.

From three-point land this season, Baldwin has knocked down just 8-of-32 from long-range, which converts to a 25% clip from three-point range this season. On the defensive side of the basketball, Baldwin currently ranks second in the Southern Conference in steals-per-game, as he is averaging 1.9 thefts-per-game entering Tuesday night's clash with the Paladins.

Alonso has steadily gained in confidence in the offensive rotation as the season has progressed, which is much in the same fashion as Baldwin last season. The freshman guard has had some outstanding performances for the Spartans so far in his first season for the Spartans, and enters the game with the Paladins having started seven of the 14 games for the Spartans this season.

The wing guard is one of the top three-point specialist in the Southern Conference this season, as Alonso has connected on 34-of-80 from three-point range this season, which converts to 42.5% from long range so far this season. Alonso comes in ranking fifth in the Southern Conference in three-point field goal percentage this season.

Alonso comes in with some impressive performances in his first season with the Spartans, including a 25-point outing this season against North Carolina A&T, which of course was a season-high. All told, Alonso has eight games in double-figures this season. In the win over the Aggies, Alonso was able to knock down seven shots from beyond the arc.

Rounding out the excpected starting five for the Spartans heading into Tuesday night's matchup with the Paladins will be wing guard Marvin Smith (9.1 PPG, 5.0 RPG). Smith has turned in a solid performance for the Spartans this season and has started all 14 games so far this season.

Smith can be a threat as a perimeter shooter, having knocked down 19 triples so far in 2015-16, while shooting 26.8% (19-of-71) from downtown this season. Smith's two best performances this season also helped yield career-best performances, as he posted 15 points on two occasions against Greensboro College and Central Florida.

The Spartans will look to several players for aid off the bench, led by Demetrius Troy (6.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG), Asad Lamot (4.4 PPG,1.4 RPG) and Lloyd Burgess (1.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG) appear to be the most serviceable players off the bench. Troy and Lamot get the most minutes off the bench, averaging over 20 minutes a game off the Miller's bench. Troy has been one of the most impressive young guards in the SoCon this season and only recently became eligible. He scored a career-high 14 points in the loss at North Carolina.

A Quick Look At The Paladins

The Paladins have looked like a different basketball team over the past three halves of basketball, dating back to the second half of the loss to UNC Asheville in a 67-65 loss in Furman's final non-conference game of the season.

Furman continues to be led by Stephen Croone (14.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG), who is coming off a 22-point effort in the Southern Conference opener against VMI, marking his second 20-point scoring effort of the season. Croone will need one of his better efforts tonight, as the Paladins have won just twice in 12 outings all-time at the Greensboro Coliseum against the Spartans.

Croone, a preseason All-SoCon selection, will be joined in the backcourt on Tuesday night by John Davis III (5.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG) and Daniel Fowler (6.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG), but the the real x-factors in the past couple of games has been the support provided off the bench in the past two games by Devin Sibley (8.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 APG) and senior Larry Wideman (2.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG). Sibley posted 16 points off the bench in the loss to UNC Asheville and finished with a solid six points and a pair of steals in 24 minutes of court action against VMI in the SoCon opener.

The Paladins will also look for Geoff Beans (4.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG) to post more quality minutes off the bench as he did on Saturday, and slowly but surely, Beans seems to be rounding into form as he has shown signs of being the offensive threat he was in league play last season. Beans looks more confident shooting the basketball than he did early in the season, and if he gets going, it will only make this Furman team more dangerous.

Wideman's minutes off the bench have been welcomed by head coach Niko Medved over the past couple of games, calling Wideman Furman's best defender. If Wideman can keep providing those type performances off the bench, his leadership will be vital as the Paladins move forward and deeper into Southern Conference play.

Perhaps the biggest reason to watch tonight is Kris Acox (8.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG), who seems to have flipped a switch in the past two games, providing the Paladins with strong interior play, both on the boards and as a scoring threat. He is coming off a 15-point effort, six-rebound and four-steal effort in the win over VMI this past Saturday.

Continued strong play from him will be vital as the Paladins get into the meat of SoCon play, and Furman is 5-1 this season in games when Acox has posted double figures.

Impressive freshman Matt Rafferty (9.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG) will round out the starting five for the Paladins on Tuesday night, and continues to rank second in the SoCon in rebounding this season. Acox ranks second in the league in field goal percentage so far this season, connecting on a blistering 62.7% from the field this season.