Furman heads back to ‘The Well’ looking to maintain upward trend

Game 25: UNCG (12-10, 4-6 SC) at Furman (17-7, 9-2 SoCon)

The Venue: Bon Secours Wellness Arena

Date and Time: Feb. 5, 2022/12 p.m. EST

The Series: 42nd meeting/UNCG leads 21-20

Last Meeting:  Furman 58, UNCG 54  (Jan. 5, 2022)

The Coaches: Bob Richey (106-41/5th yr); Mike Jones (183-157, 10th year/12-10 in 1st yr at UNCG)

Brief Preview of the matchup:

The last time Furman faced UNCG on the college basketball hardwood, Paladins head coach Bob Richey was on the way from a hospital in Greenville to help coach the Paladins against UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum with he and his wife’s third child–Jax Berner Richey–just hours old.

Arriving about 90 minutes prior to tip-off, it was enough to help Furman to garner a hard-fought 58-54 win on the road against defending Southern Conference champion UNCG. It was a game that an unlikely hero stepped up for the Paladins, in Marcus Foster, who posted an important 13-point and eight rebounds in the four-point win, which was highlighted by a perfect 4-for-4 effort from three-point land.

A month ago, Furman entered the clash looking to rebound from its first SoCon loss–a 76-67 setback at VMI–while a month later the Paladins head into the clash with the Spartans looking to maintain their hold on first-place atop the Southern Conference, having won five-straight and playing their best basketball now.

Furman has won its last five games by an average of 25.4 PPG, including a 102-83 victory last time out against The Citadel at mid-week.

Saturday’s noon tip-off at Bon Secours Wellness Arena is one that offers a chance to see the two winningest teams in Southern Conference play since the start of the 2015-16 season, with the Paladins having won 85 Southern Conference games during that span is the most conference victories during that span, while UNCG’s 84 wins rank just one game behind in second.

UNCG’s 137 overall wins during that same span ranks as the most overall victories for any SoCon program.

The Spartans are the defending Southern Conference regular-season and tournament champions and come to Greenville looking to put an end to a two-game losing skid, which includes losses at Wofford (L, 66-85) and vs VMI (L, 65-76) last time out.

Since joining the Southern Conference prior to the 1997-98 campaign, Furman has only recorded two wins in a single season once against UNC Greensboro, posting two wins in three meetings during the 2015-16 season.

After splitting the regular-season, Stephen Croone and Devin Sibley combined for 40 points, with each scoring 20 points, respectively, in a battle of two emerging Southern Conference powers, as he led the Paladins to an 80-64 quarterfinal win over the Spartans.

In scheduled regular-season meetings, Furman has never defeated the Spartans twice in the same regular-season. That stat is somewhat skewed, as the teams only faced each other only once during the regular-season season from 1997-98 until the league went away from divisional play following the 2013-14 campaign.

Who To Watch For the Paladins:

Furman has its three-headed monster in guards Alex Hunter (14.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.8 RPG), Mike Bothwell (15.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.0 APG) and Jalen Slawson (15.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.8 BPG, 2.0 SPG), which is as good as any three veteran leaders in all of college basketball.

However, in many ways for the Paladins this season, it’s been as much about the other five or six players that have stepped up to give the Paladins much more depth than it has enjoyed previously in recent seasons.

Player’s like sophomore point guard Joe Anderson, sophomore wing Marcus Foster (7.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.0 SPG), graduate transfer Conley Garrison (9.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and true freshman point guard J.P. Pegues (2.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG) and Furman sophomore forward Garrett Hien (5.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG) have all had their moments in which they have had to step up and be the man in an important moment for the Paladins. Hien posted 18 points and eight boards in Furman’s 80-72 overtime win at Louisville early in the season, and lead the Paladins in scoring with 12 points in a 30-point road win at Mercer last Saturday.

One of the most impressive athletes on the Furman roster has been Tyrese Hughey (3.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who had his redshirt removed just prior to conference play. He gives the Paladins extra length on defense, as well as an extra physical presence on the boards.

Since being re-introduced into the Furman rotation after a six-game hiatus, backup point guard Joe Anderson (6.3 PPG, 1.3 RPG) has been playing as well and shooting the basketball as well as any Paladin on the roster.

It’s not all been about the offensive efficiency, however, for the Paladins, but rather, its commitment and intentionality on the defensive end. Since entering conference play, there’s been no one better than the Paladins at defending foes, leading the league in scoring defense (62.0 PPG), field goal percentage defense (41.5%), three-point field goal percentage defense (32.4%), second in overall blocks per game (45 blocks/4.1 BPG) and first in steals (106 steals/9.6 SPG).

The Paladins have turned defense into offense as good as anyone in the nation, and as a team, their 210 total steals this season ranks seventh in all of NCAA Division I college basketball.

The defensive formula was one which was utilized in strong fashion during its run to titles and subsequent NCAA berths in both 2018 and 2021, as the Spartans had one of the best defensive players to ever play in the Southern Conference, in Isaiah Miller.

Miller ended his career second in all-time steals in league history, and finished his outstanding career as the only player in league history to ever win the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year award three times. Miller has moved on to the NBA, however.

Furman’s version of Miller on the defensive end of the floor has been Slawson. The senior forward from Summerville, S.C., may have 21 double-figure scoring games this season, however, its been his league-leading 49 steals (7th nationally) which has perhaps the most important ingredient

Furman has also been pretty good offensively, leading the country with 299 three-pointers made, closing in on the program record of 338 made triples in a single-season, which was registered by Bob Richey’s first team as head coach back during the 2017-18 season. Hunter, a super senior, who opted to return for an optional season afforded him by the COVID-19 pandemic, has made the most of it and needs just two more three-pointers to become the school’s new all-time three-point king.

His 287-career treys ranks him just one behind the school’s all-time record holder, Jordan Lyons (2017-20), who finished his outstanding Paladin career with 288.

Who To Watch for UNCG:

While Isaiah Miller is plying his trade in the NBA and Wes Miller is in his first year head coach at Cincinnati, there is plenty of talent and coaching acumen on the sidelines despite losing such substantial members of UNCG’s tradition build. It speaks volumes to what the two Millers were able to do with the fact that UNCG was able to make such a solid transition.

The Spartans are under the direction of Mike Jones–a former Larry Davis assistant at Furman along with UMBC head coach Ryan Odom–and he was able to build Radford into a perennial Big South power, much the way Miller was able to do in the Gate City with the Spartans before moving on to the Queen.City to head up a rebuild for the Bearcats.

That said, Jones hasn’t let the expectation of championships slip even though there have been growing pains at times this season. Through it all, the Spartans remain a force to be reckoned for everyone in the SoCon, with a 12-10 overall record and a 4-6 mark in league play.

As evidenced by the four-point margin in the first meeting between the two the first time around, there isn’t much difference between the two, and the Spartans have routinely been in close games through their 10 league games to this point.

Two of the biggest additions to the fold have been De’Monte Buckingham (13.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG ) and Dante Treacy (6.0 PPG, 2.7 APG), who have been key performers in the backcourt for the Spartans this season. Both transfers have fueled more of a seamless transition than would have normally been expected with the loss of a player of Miller’s ilk in the backcourt.

Both Buckingham and Treacy have stepped in and been immediate impact players for UNCG, with the duo having started all but one of the Spartans’ games so far in year one of the Mike Jones era.

Buckingham has been the go-to-scorer for the Spartans so far this season, posting 20 or more points 14 times so far since transferring in from Cal State Bakersfield.

Another significant piece to the backcourt puzzle for the Spartans are both Keyshaun Langley (8.4 PPG, 2.1 APG) and Kobe Langley (7.3 PPG, 3.2 APG), who are a pair of lighting quick guards that are probably are most like VMI’s Honor Huff and Tre Bonham in terms of quickness, especially from the first step.

Though Kaleb Hunter (8.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG) isn’t double-figure scorer, he’s the type streaky shooter that can on occasion get the Spartans 20 points at times. Hunter brings great experience and overall basketball savvy to the UNCG backcourt. Hunter was not available for the first matchup against the Paladins this season, and he ranks third on the team in scoring, starting 10 of 20 games this season for UNCG.

In the paint, the Spartans have veteran leadership in the form of Dutchman Bas Leyte (8.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG), who features a skilled game as a passer and mid-range shooter most associated with most players, who hail from Europe.

Another of the most mature players on the UNCG roster is Mohammed Abdulsalam (6.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG), who posted a career-high 14 points earlier this season in an overtime loss to UMass. Abdulsalam had one of his best performances in his UNCG career in the Spartans’ 86-73 win at ‘The Well’ a couple of years ago, as he posted 10 points and a pair of boards off the bench. Abdulsalam has started all 21 games he has played in for the Spartans this season.

The Spartans aren’t an offensive juggernaut, but they defend the ball well all over the place due to their quickness and overall athleticism. They do have one 80-point outing through their first 10 Southern Conference games, posting an 80-76 win at East Tennessee State.

Likewise, Furman’s 58 points in the four-point win at the Greensboro Coliseum last month marked its lowest point total this season. Overall this season, the Spartans rank second in the SoCon in scoring defense (65.3 PPG) and fourth in field goal percentage defense (41.6%).

One thing the Spartans have consistently done well time and time again this season is rebound the basketball, leading the SoCon in rebounding margin (+5.7).

While Furman has seemingly had its way with its last five foes, the Spartans and the way they defend will likely make this game a much tougher win to come by should the Paladins be fortunate enough to do so.

That said, an expected great atmosphere is expected for the high noon battle with students back on campus. In the first trip to well, which resulted in an 81-66 win over Mercer, Furman’s student body had yet to return to campus from Christmas Break.

Saturday’s contest will also be ‘Legends Day’ for the men’s basketball program, as numerous Paladin basketball alumni are expected to in attendance to see the No. 66 team in the latest NCAA NET rankings (highest in the Palmetto State) take the SoCon’s reigning NCAA Tournament representative and overall very talented UNCG team.

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