Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Furman Preview: Croone Tries to Lead the Paladins to Surprise

Every day for the next two weeks, the Scanning the SoCon participants will get to write a preview of their teams. Today, SoConJohn writes a preview of the Furman Paladins.

Furman basketball begins its second season under head coach Niko Medved looking to improve on what was a 2013-14 season which saw the Paladins finish 9-21 overall and 3-15 in Southern Conference play.

Recently, the Paladins were selected to finish eighth in the Southern Conference, which once again beckons the Paladins to earn their respect on the hardwood once again this season.

In fact, the Paladins haven’t finished in the upper echelon of the Southern Conference since the 2010-11 season, which saw the Paladins win 22 games under the direction of Jeff Jackson, which included taking College of Charleston to the brink before losing a close 63-58 decision to the College of Charleston in the SoCon semifinals and 

The Paladins would have to replace major losses from that team a year later, including Amu Saaka, Noah States, Justin Dehm and Darryl Evans--all starters--to graduation. The Paladins still had experience with Brandon Sebirumbi, Charlie and Colin Reddick as key pillars from that team that won 20 games in a season for the first time in 20 years.

The Paladins would claim a respectable 15-16 record in 2011-12, however, the Paladins finished just fifth in the Southern Conference’s South Division.

However, the following season would see the collective wheels run off for the Paladin basketball program once again, much the same as they had in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, which saw the Paladins win a combined 13 games in two seasons. When the Paladins won just seven games (7-24) in 2012-13, it marked the third time if seven seasons Jackson had failed to eclipse the 10-win plateau.

Medved knew Furman’s challenges when he took the job in April of 2013, as he had coached under Larry Davis prior to Jackson’s arrival, and helped turn around a Colorado State program which had been mired in its own struggles much like the Paladin basketball program was. However, during the Larry Davis regime, the Paladins were far better and a more stable program than they were under Jackson, especially in terms of recruiting.

Medved was a major part of Furman consistently ranking in the top tier of the SoCon in recruiting classes in the early-mid 2000s, bringing in the likes of Eric Webb, Moussa Diagne, Malaye Ndoye and Quan Prowell. The 2003-04 Furman class was athletic, brash and one that was competitive every time out in the SoCon. The Paladins took eventual champion East Tennessee State to the wire in the 2004 Southern Conference Tournament Quarterfinals before losing, 94-84.

But just two years later, Davis would leave to become an assistant at Cincinnati, while Medved, who stayed for a month as the interim coach, and then Jackson was hired from Vanderbilt.

Medved would move on from Furman to Colorado State in 2006, serving first under Tim Miles and then under Larry Eustachy, helping the Rams to four-straight postseason tournament appearances from 2010-13, helping the Rams to the NIT in 2010 and ‘11 and the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and ‘13.

Looking Back At 2013-14:

In Medved’s first season, the Paladins would finish with a 9-21 overall mark and a 3-15 mark in Southern Conference play.

Although it was just two more wins than Jackson’s final season, there was a more positive enthusiasm about the program in the one season under Medved’s leadership than the final season under Jackson.

Though Medved’s first season as a collegite coach saw the Paladins win just nine games, finishing 9-21 and 3-13 in Southern Conference play, which was 10th out of 11 teams in the SoCon. But the Paladins were young during the 2013-14 season, with only one senior, in Charlie Reddick (6.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG), who battled injuries for much of his final two seasons as a Paladin.

More importantly, the team regained its confidence, and though it seems on the surface that 2013-14 was a disappointment with only nine overall wins and three league wins, history will likely tell a different tale, as it will be looked back upon as a pivotal season during the Medved regime, which saw Furman lay the foundation for future SoCon regular-season and tournament titles, and competing among the elite in the SoCon on a regular basis.

Not since the Butch Estes era has Furman had that type of consistency, but now with the league no longer being divided into divisions, with Furman easily in the tougher of the two league divisions, which also featured Davidson, Wofford and College of Charleston, who were two consistent competitiors for league regular-season and conference titles with each passing season.

Furman would show signs of improvement under Medved from the outset, with an early home win over Big South member Gardner-Webb, posting a 75-64 win over a team that had won 21 games, which included an appearance in the CIT a year earlier.

The Paladins showed plenty of improvement in an early-season matchup at Timmons Arena against a team that made the “Sweet Sixteen” in 2013, as the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, who returned four players from that remarkable team, came to Timmons Arena for an early-season matchup, and after leading most of the game, the Paladins would drop a heartbreaking 70-69 decision to the Atlantic Sun tournament reigning champs. A pair of Brett Comer free throws with 5.2 seconds remaining to help FGCU claim the road win.

After leading 67-63 with 2:35 remaining, Chase Fieler’s lay-up and free throw and a Jamail Jones lay-up helped the Eagles on a mini 5-0 run, and with 60 seconds to play, the Eagles had their first lead (68-67) since the 13:41 mark of the opening half of play. FGCU’s experience would serve them well in crunch time, and they were able to escape Greenville with the win.

Stephen Croone’s 30-point effort would help lead the way in the victory, and it would be the start of a sensational sophomore campaign for the Covington, GA product.

The non-conference slate would get much more challenging, however, including games at two of the nation’s top defensive teams, in Clemson (L, 71-35) and California (L, 90-60), while also facing ACC member Virginia Tech (L, 75-54) and former SoCon and new CAA member College of Charleston (L, 89-55).

The Paladins ran into one of the nation’s top freshman players, in Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year Jon Severe, on a night when Fordham (L, 79-48) experienced one of its best shooting nights of what turned out to be just a 10-win campaign for the Rams last season.

The Paladins would pick up their lone road wins of the non-conference road slate in 2013-14 in victories at UC Davis (W, 75-65) and Presbyterian (W, 74-59).

Then, just prior to Christmas, the Paladins faced the Liberty Flames on Dec. 20, 2013, and it would be a night in which Croone scorched the nets for 40 points to go with 11 boards finishing with one of the best scoring nights in Paladin basketball recent history.

It was the best individual scoring performance in a game since Feb. 5, 1972, when Roy Simpson went for 45 points against East Carolina. Croone connected on 11-of-16 shots from the field and was 13-for-21 at the charity stripe.

The Paladins posted just three wins in Southern Conference play, posting victories against  Appalachian State (68-53) and The Citadel at Timmons Arena (W, ), while the lone road league win came at McAlister Field House, as the Paladins downed The Citadel (W, 76-71).

The win over the Bulldogs would see Croone rise over 6-8 Citadel forward for a one-handed monster dunk to provide one of the more memorable highlights in the recent history of Paladin basketball. It was not the first time a Citadel player had been posterized by a Paladin dunk, as on 1996 Andre Kerr followed up a missed shot inside the final minute, taking the ball from the air and jamming back with two hands over The Citadel seven-foot Russian center Kiril Misuychenko at Memorial Auditorium to secure a 68-67 win for the Paladins.

Furman’s season would come to an end in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament, as the Paladins, who entered the tournament as the No. 11 seed, would bow out of the tournament with a loss to No. 7 seed Georgia Southern claimed a 65-50 win over the Paladins in the opening round of the tournament at Timmons Arena.

The Paladin Backcourt:

The 2013-14 would see point guard Stephen Croone come into his own as a player and a scorer for the Paladins, and though he had a strong season as a freshman in 2012-13, averaging 9.9 PPG and 4.0 APG, his sophomore season would be sensational, averaging 19.1 PPG, which ranked him second in the league in scoring.

With Georgia Southern’s Jelani Hewitt, who was the only player that averaged a higher scoring average than Croone, at 19.4 PPG, having moved on to the Sun Belt Conference, Croone returns as the SoCon’s leading scorer. Croone added 4.4 rebounds-per-game and 3.7 assists-per-game.

Croone would finish the 2013-14 season by scoring in double figures in 29 of 30 games for the Paladins this past season, with the only team to hold Croone to less than double figures in scoring this season being Clemson, who limited the sophomore guard to nine points in a non-conference game early on in the season. He scored 20 or points in 15 games in 2013-14.

Croone also got it done on the defensive end of the floor, too, as he was able to finish the 2013-14 season ranking second in the Southern Conference in steals, finishing the season tied with Western Carolina’s James Sinclair in steals-per-game, averaging 1.7 steals-per-contest. All that being said, the conference’s most talented player might reside in Greenville, S.C. in 2014-15.

Furman could have even been more talented and deep in the backcourt, however, Jordan Loyd, who was plagued by back and knee problems eventually decided to transfer to the University of Indianapolis in the spring after red-shirting the 2013-14 season.

Croone will be in good company in the Paladin backcourt this season, however, returning William Gates, Jr. (8.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG). Gates Jr. is famously known for his father, who starred in Hoop Dreams and would go on to become a great collegiate player at Marquette.

Gates, Jr. was impressive in an early-season win against Gardner-Webb, posting a career-high 18 points off the bench, helping the Paladins to an impressive win. It would be the first of four-straight double figure games for Gates, Jr. Gates, Jr. shot the ball extremely well from three as a freshman, leading the team and ranking first on the team, connecting on 42% (26-of-62) from three-point range last.

The Paladins’ top perimeter shooter last season was rising junior Larry Wideman (9.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG), as the Loris, S.C., product ranked third on the team in scoring, with his 47 triples leading the club.

Wideman now has 89 triples in his first two seasons with the Paladin basketball program. Wideman would enjoy his best game of the season against Sewanee in the season opener, netting a career-high 25 points, including going 5-for-9 from three, in the opener, while following that up with a 24-point effort in the win over Brevard.

His top performance against a Division I foe was a 21-point night against Presbyterian in a 74-59 road win. Those were just three of what turned out to be 11 double-figure scoring peformances for the 6-4 wing guard last season.

Rounding out the veteran returnees in the backcourt is senior Aaron O’Neill (1.4 PPG, 42.7% from 3pt range)and the native of Cincinnati, OH walked on three years ago and became an integral part of the Paladin basketball team last season, as he added depth at the point guard position. 

During his junior season of 2013-14, O’Neill registered 11 starts and saw action in 25 games, posting a career-high nine points in an 89-72 win over Brevard last season.

Several newcomers will figure into the rotation in the backcourt, with Daniel Fowler, John Davis III and Devin Sibley expected to see plenty of action in the lineup.

Fowler, a 6-4, 195-lb wing, comes to Furman from Allatoona High School in Acworth, GA, where he was a solid all-around player for head coach Markus Hood.

Fowler could be quite an impact player in the backcourt performer for the Paladins in the upcoming season, as he was a 5A All-State selection and ranked No. 13 in Georgia’s 2014 senior class by HoopSeen.com, averaging 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG and 4.1 assists-per-game. He did that all while leading Allatoona to am impressive 29-2 record as a senior.

Davis III comes to Furman from Beechwood High School in Beechwood, OhIo where he was instrumental in leading the Bison to a Chagrin Valley Conference title and Associated Press No. 1 ranking in Division III during the season. He was named Chagrin Valley Conference Player of the Year and was a three-time all-league performer.

As a senior, he was named the Ohio Division III Player of the Year, and he finished his prep career as Beechwood’s all-time leading scorer, posting a career total of 1,785 points.

Sibley comes to Furman from Knoxville, Tenn, where he was a star guard at Karns High School. The 6-2, 175-lb guard could score points in bunches, averaging 25.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 3.0 APG as he led Karns High School to a 23-7 record and a playoff appearance as a senior. The Tennessee Sports Association named Sibley All-State to the All-State team, while he also garnered all-region and was named the 3-AAA Player of the Year.

Medved added a number of athletic scorers and excellent perimeter shooters to the backcourt, with Fowler figuring to be the most versatile of the bunch, while both Sibley and Davis III are excellent perimeter shooters and play with poise, and like Fowler, are also good leapers.
The Paladin Front Court:

If there has been a deficiency the last couple of seasons, its been the front court, as the Paladins have had to develop young post performers into being proficient Southern Conference big men in a league that seemingly had some of mid-major college basketball’s best in 2013-14, in Chattanooga’s Z. Mason and Davidson’s De’Mon Brooks.

Medved hopes that with two years under his belt in the league now under his belt as a starter, Kendrec Ferrara (9.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG) will now develop into a dominating big man in much the same way that Mason and Brooks were last season for their respective programs.

Ferrara enjoyed a career-high night against The Citadel, posting 27 points in one of the three road wins for Furman this past season. Ferrara finished an impressive 12-of-17 from the field in that contest, helping Furman to its first of two league wins over The Citadel in 2013-14.

Furman had two players ranked two players ranked in the Top 10 in blocked shots last season, including Ferrara, who averaged 0.9 BPG and posted 27 blocks for the season to finish ranked seventh the in the league. However, the other part of that shot-blocking duo--freshman forward Adonis Rwabigwi, who ranked tied for fifth in the league in blocks (24 blocks in 24 games played, 1.0 BPG)--has transferred.

Despite coming on and becoming a scoring threat in the latter part of the season, Rwabigwi could not stay out of foul trouble, proving costly to a team that lacked depth overall in the front court last season.

There is good news, however, as Kris Acox (3.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG)--an athletic presence on the floor along with possessing a tenacious work ethic--was beginning to come into his own in his first season with the Paladins when his season ended abruptly due to a broken foot suffered just after the start of conference play on Jan. 11, forcing the 6-6 forward from Iceland to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. For what Acox lacks in size in the post, he will make up for in sheer effort and atheticism.

The final returning regular in the front court for the Paladins heading into the 2014-15 season is 6-8 power forward Kevin Chuisseu (0.9 PPG, 1.2 RPG). Chuisseu was extremely raw last season, but is a good athlete. With the loss of Rwabigwi, however, Chuisseu and Ferrara are the only players on the Paladin roster taller than 6-6.

The Paladins have some solid newcomers in the front court, beginning with 6-8 forward Isaiah Watkins, who came to Furman from Duquesne, and he will have three years of eligibility remaining but must sit out the 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer requirements. Prior to signing with Duquesne in 2012, Watkins was rated as a three-star recruit coming out of high school, according to Rivals.com. 

The best signee of the newcomers underneath and a player that could see the see some significant time underneath this season could be 6-7 freshman forward Geoff Beans, who has been busy hitting the weights in order to get his body in physical shape to be able to bang underneath with Division I college talent in 2014-15.

The 210-lb Beans comes to Furman from Toledo, OH, joining Fowler as a pair of recruits coming to Furman from the Buckeye State. Beans played his prep basketball at Ottawa Hills High School where helped guide the program to a TAAC title, district title and 22-2 record in his final season.

Beans will remind Furman fans of some of the Davidson post players of the past when it comes to his versatility, as he can be a physical presence underneath, as well as possessing the ability to step out and hit the perimeter shot, having connected on 45% (47-of-104) from beyond the arc in his junior season of 2012-13. As a senior, Beans averaged 17.6 PPG and 4.5 RPG.

The Schedule:

The Paladins will play an attractive basketball schedule in 2014-15, as the Paladins will face a pair of former Southern Conference foes, in College of Charleston (Nov. 14) and Appalachian State (Nov. 19) in the early portion of the schedule, with both the Cougars and Mountaineers coming to Timmons Arena. UC Davis, a team that the Paladins recorded one of their three road wins against last season, with a 75-65 win on Dec. 30 of last season, makes the return trip to Timmons Arena on Nov. 22, rounding out what is an early three-game homestand.

The Paladins will also play on the road at three major programs, with road trips to Duke (Nov. 26), TCU (Dec. 9) and Minnesota (Dec. 22). The Paladins will open Southern Conference play on Dec. 19, with a trip to Fort Myers, FL, to battle Florida Gulf-Coast in a key battle with a top-tier Atlantic Sun program.

Dunk City, as they’re affectionately known, of course made that historic run to the Sweet Sixteen two years ago and last year the high-flying Eagles qualified for the NIT after winning the regular-season Atlantic Sun crown before ending the season at 22-13 after a 58-53 loss to Florida State. The Paladins were able to hang with the perennial A-Sun power, leading most of the way before Joe Dooley’ s club was able to escape Greenville with a 70-69 win. The Paladins and Eagles will square off at Alico Arena on Dec. 19.

Final Prediction:

What can we expect from Niko Medved’s second season in charge of the Furman basketball program? Well, for one thing, an improvement in offense. The Paladins struggled to score last season, averaging a league low 65.2 PPG and the Paladins ranked in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage, posting a 46.1% clip last season.

With additions of Daniel Fowler, John Davis III and Devin Sibley in the backcourt will make things a little easier on Stephen Croone this season, and should also improve Furman’s perimeter threats, as the Paladins will also looked to improve on their eighth-place ranking in the league in three-pointers made (196 /5.5 PG) last season, and with both Sibley, Fowler and Davis III all being dynamic scorers for multiple areas on the floor, the Paladins should at least be more versatile and athletic as a team in 2014-15.

The biggest concern is the lack of size for a team that was already one of the smaller teams in the SoCon last season. The Paladins must find a way to get to the boards on both ends of the floor this season, coming off a campaign which saw the Paladins rank second-to-last in rebounding margin (-3.3), with The Citadel being the only team to rank lower in that category.

It’s hard to say what Furman’s improvement will equate to in terms of a win total for the upcoming campaign, however, if I were to guess at such a total, I would say the Paladins will win 13-15 games in 2014-15, and the 2015-16 season should see the Paladins competing for the conference title once again.

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