Furman and App State ready for classic mid-major battle

Furman (4-2) at App State (5-2)

Series: 88th meeting/Furman leads 48-39

Locale/Venue: Boone, N.C/Holmes Convocation Center (8,325)


While there is no such thing as a SoCon-Sun Belt basketball challenge in the same way in which the ACC-Big Ten Challenge will finish up its final season of games between the perennial college basketball power conferences this week, there is more at stake in Boone than there will be in locales like Champaigne, Ill or Clemson, S.C.

That’s because these games aren’t a showcase for leagues like the SoCon or Sun Belt, but more of a measuring stick at this point in the season, as well as a being building block for early March. With power conferences like the Big Ten and ACC getting as many as nine or more teams in the NCAA Tournament, much of the non-conference plays out with the importance of the NBA summer league schedule without the interest nationally from basketball fans wanting to see the best of the best face each other.

However, most of those teams already know or have a good idea of what their fate will be in March regardless of what they do in the non-conference.

Fresh off back-to-back wins over Tusculum and South Carolina, Furman will take the floor again against an old Southern Conference rival when the Paladins battle Appalachian State in Boone.

Like Furman, the Apps are also coming off one of their biggest wins of the season, handing the Paladins league rival East Tennessee State a 74-70 setback, marking App State’s first win in the Tri-Cities since 2005. The Mountaineers also have a 61-60 win over Louisville this season, which is all part of what a 5-2 start to the season for has been the Black and Gold.

Appalachian also has wins in the 2022-23 season over Warren Wilson (W, 142-74), North Carolina Central (W, 79-74 OT), and Southeastern Louisiana (W, 83-74). Losses for the Mountaineers this season have come against Campbell (L, 58-63) and Kennesaw State (L, 67-71).

The Paladins and Mountaineers played a hard-fought contest last season in Greenville, with the Paladins able to emerge with a 73-65 win at Timmons Arena, in what was the first meeting between the old SoCon foes since the 2015-16 season.

The win marked Furman’s fourth-straight in a series that dates back to Dec. 9, 1971, when the Paladins were able to take a 101-91 win over the Mountaineers at the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Greenville.

Tuesday night’s meeting at the Holmes Center will mark Furman’s first trip to the High Country to take on Appalachian State since the Nov. 17, 2015, as the Paladins were able to emerge from the Holmes Center with a 79-70 win in what was the initial season that saw the stark turnaround for Paladin basketball.

The Mountaineers have begun their own turnaround under head coach Dustin Kerns, and despite dropping the eight-point decision to the Paladins in Greenville last season, the Black and Gold went on to have another good season under then third-year head coach Dustin Kerns, as the Mountaineers finished 19-15 overall, including a 12-6 mark in Sun Belt play, which was good enough for a second-place finish overall in the league standings.

After opening the Sun Belt Tournament with a 73-60 win over Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers would see their dream of making the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight season end one game short of getting back to the title game in Pensacola, FL, as the Mountaineers dropped a 71-66 decision to eventual tournament champion Georgia State.

The Mountaineers did accept a postseason invitation to The Basketball Classic, where they were knocked out by Big South member USC Upstate, dropping an 80-74 contest on their home floor.

Kerns is now in his fourth season at the helm of the Mountaineer basketball program and has posted a solid 59-44 record at the helm in the High Country.

In Kerns’ third season on the mountain in 2021-22, he led the Black and Gold to Apps to their third-straight above .500 season, marking the first time that has happened in three successive seasons since being last accomplished from 1997-2000.

Appalachian’s 12 conference wins last season were the most ever recorded by ASU since joining the Sun Belt, and most conference victories in a season since posting 13 wins as a SoCon member during the 2009-10 season. Unlike power six basketball, accomplishments often get lost in the abyss of forgotten if you don’t win your conference tournament. Furman can relate after notching program milestone after program milestone in 2021-22, however, the media/fans only remember the Paladins lost on a David Jean-Baptiste buzzer-beater in the SoCon championship game.

For both Furman and Appalachian State, games like this in the non-conference are vital in preparation for that few days at the beginning of March. In fact, say what you want to about the ACC-Big Ten challenge, which will also take place tonight in a venue near you in the South or Midwest, however, while those games are meaningful, they aren’t as important to those power six programs as the importance of a game like the one between App State and Furman to each program when it comes to conferences that are one-bid NCAA leagues. Both Furman and Appalachian State will get far out of tonight’s battle later on down the line than say Clemson or Penn State might get out of their intersectional power conference hoops battle this evening at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Furman comes in with an impressive No. 61 in the latest Ken Pomeroy rankings, while the Mountaineers currently sit at 214 in the latest edition of the KenPom ratings.

All that to say this. When Furman’s Bob Richey and App State’s Dustin Kerns see their respective teams go at it in another intriguing mid-major battle Tuesday, it will offer casual basketball fans to see to the premier young basketball coaches at the mid-major level go against each other in a post-Thanksgiving treat of a basketball game. Not only that, but it will also be more meaningful basketball over the course of 40 minutes than what is offered in any of ESPN’s nationally televised ACC-Big Ten Challenge clashes slated for this evening,

Furman’s last two

Furman has posted wins over Tusculum (102-74) and South Carolina (W, 79-60). The Paladins shot 73.3% in the opening half of play, connecting on 18 of their final 20 shots of the half and used a 32-4 run in the opening half to blow open the game in the opening half, taking a 30-point, 57-27 lead to the break.

The Paladins ended the game connecting on 60% (39-of-65) from the field and finished shooting an outstanding 57.9% from three-point range in the win, connecting on 11-of-19 attempts from long range in the win over the Pioneers.

The Paladins got a pair of 22-point scoring performances from both Marcus Foster and Jalen Slawson in the win, with Foster’s 22-point effort marking a career-high, while Slawson offered 10 rebounds and five assists to account for his 12th-career double-double. Slawson also led the Paladins with five of the team’s 24 assists in the win.

Foster had his most complete game of the season for the Paladins, as he went 7-for-15 from the field, which included a 3-for-5 effort from three-point range and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the charity stripe.

Mike Bothwell and Tyrese Hughey rounded out the Paladins in double figures in the contest, adding 18 and 15 points, respectively. For Bothwell, it’s a continued strong start to the season for the senior guard, as he continued to look the part of an early leading candidate for Southern Conference Player of the Year. He enters Tuesday night’s clash against the Mountaineers averaging 19.8 PPG and 4.2 RPG.

The game against Tusculum saw the Paladins without one of their leaders in the paint, as Garrett Hien missed the game against the Pioneers due to a minor injury and is expected to be back against the Mountaineers on Tuesday night.

He was certainly a noticeable figure in Furman’s 19-point win over South Carolina a little over a week ago. In fact, the junior forward from Charlotte, N.C., continued the theme of showing up large in games against power conference competition. After dropping 18 in a win at Louisville last season, Hien posted a career-high 20 points off the bench in the 19-point triumph over the Gamecocks in the final game of the Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic.

Hien finished the contest against the Gamecocks by connecting on 8-of-12 shots from the field, which included a 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Hien posted 13 of his 20 points in the second half.

Hien was joined in double figures in the win by Jalen Slawson, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, while Tyrese Hughey and Mike Bothwell rounded out a quartet of Paladins in double figures, as the duo contributed 12 and 11 points, respectively.

Furman shot an impressive 50.8% from the field in the win over the Gamecocks and connected on 44.4% from long range, as the Paladins were 12-of-27 from long-range in the win.

Bothwell with a side of Slaw

The primary reason Furman was selected to win the 2022-23 Southern Conference basketball crown by both the league’s head coaches and media has much to do with the return of one of the top senior tandems in all of mid-major basketball, in Furman’s dynamic duo of senior guard Mike Bothwell (19.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG,) and senior forward Jalen Slawson (15.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG). After all, it was just the third time Furman has ever been picked to win the Southern Conference by the coaches or media in the preseason, and marks the first time the Paladins entered a season as the consensus favorite to win the league.

Additionally, Bothwell and Slawson represent two of the four league selections to the Lou Henson Award Watch list, which is given annually to the top player in mid-major basketball. Last season, Chattanooga’s outstanding guard Malachi Smith

Slawson is the reigning Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and is off to a strong start to his final season in Greenville. In a loss to Winthrop last season, he posted Furman’s first triple-double in program history, as he posted 15 points, dished out 12 helpers and ripped down 10 boards in an 85-80 road loss to the Eagles last season.

To give you an idea of how vital Slawson is to what Furman does offensively, one only need take a quick glance at the SoCon’s individual stats. The 6-7 senior from Summerville, S.C., currently ranks sixth in the league in scoring (15.8 PPG), ninth in rebound average (6.5 RPG), fourth in field goal percentage (65.0%), fourth in assists (4.3 APG), second in steals (2.2 SPG), and fifth in blocked shots (6 blks/1.0 BPG).

Slawson recently reached the 1,000-point milestone in his career for the Paladins, as he did so in Furman’s 82-77 loss to Old Dominion at the Shriners Charleston Classic. In doing so, Slawson became the 50th player in Furman basketball history to accomplish the feat.

So far this season, Slawson has six double-figure scoring games to start his final season and that includes a pair of double-doubles. His 22-point, 10-rebound in Furman’s 102-74 triumph over Tusculum this past Saturday represented the 12th-career double-double for the senior forward.

Equally important to Furman’s success and a player that has the ability to single-handedly take over a basketball game, as we witnessed last March in the SoCon Championship tilt against Chattanooga in Asheville, Mike Bothwell has been a steady performer to start the 2022-23 season.

He needs just eight points in Tuesday night’s road clash in Boone to reach the impressive milestone of 1,500 points in a career. Like Slawson, the reigning SoCon Player of Week has scored in double figures in all six games for the Paladins this season, including three-straight 20-plus scoring efforts, which included a season and team individual high for scoring, with 26 points in Furman’s 89-74 win over Belmont.

Bothwell leads the Paladins with 12 three-pointers made this season, and is shooting a solid 38.7% (12-of-21) from beyond the arch this season. Perhaps even more impressive than what he is doing scoring the basketball is what Bothwell is doing to set up others to score the basketball.

The Cleveland Heights, OH, product currently ranks third in the league in assists-per-game (4.5 APG), while also leading the league in points per game, posting 19.8 PPG.

All told, both Slawson and Bothwell, whether scoring or distributing the basketball, are accounting for 27% of Furman’s made field goals. That’s an astonishing stat.

These guys are important too

While Bothwell and Slawson are important, head coach Bob Richey knows his team won’t achieve all of its goals without Garrett Hien (8.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG), Tyrese Hughey (10.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG), Marcus Foster (10.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG), Ben VanderWal (4.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG), Joe Anderson (3.2 PPG, 0.7 RPG), Carter Whitt (4.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG) and J.P. Pegues (7.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG) all pulling their weight this season.

Furman has by far its deepest team in Richey’s six seasons at the helm, however, this team is a different animal than the one that played beautiful basketball throughout the 2021-22 season en route to winning 22 games.

The current edition of Furman basketball won’t shoot it as well from deep, which doesn’t mean that the Paladins aren’t a better overall basketball team. In fact, they are. That won’t likely be noticeable for the time being, however, but will show up when it has to.

Furman’s 2022-23 unit is built to grind and one that, in contrast to the 2021-22 team, can stress a team defensively with scoring versatility and sheer scoring depth. Those are the primary reasons why Furman is the team to beat in the Southern Conference this season. With that said, it’s never that easy in SoCon hoops, as many as eight teams probably have a legitimate chance to win three games in Asheville.

Furman’s versatility to hit you with different weapons has shown up early, with three players not named Bothwell or Slawson having posted 20-point scoring efforts this season, with all three of those performances resulting in career highs for those respective players.

It started with J.P. Pegues’ 23-point effort in a loss to Old Dominion, while Garrett Hien added a career-best 20 points in the 19-point blitzing of South Carolina last week. Rounding out the career-high, 20-point scorers is Marcus Foster, who went for his career-high of 22 points in Furman’s 102-74 win over Tusculum last Saturday afternoon.

Looking Back at App State’s first at ETSU in 17 years

In the first of two games against former Southern Conference rivals, Appalachian State had to go on the road to secure what was impressive 74-70 win over the Bucs.

In the Mountaineer victory, which marked the second-straight win by the Apps over their mountain rival, Appalachian was able to overcome a halftime deficit for the third time this season and 21st time in Kerns’ career at the helm, as the Black and Gold went into the halftime locker room trailing the Bucs, 33-32, at the break.

The game, which was reminiscent of some of those physical Southern Conference wars the two had taken part in so many times during the previous 127 meetings between the two, saw four Mountaineers finish the contest in double figures. Leading the way for Appalachian were five players who finished in double figures in the win, with Donovan Gregory’s 14 points leading a balanced scoring effort by the Mountaineers, finishing the contest with 14 points, while Tyree Boykin added 13 points and Dibaji Walker and Christopher Mantis added 12 and 10 points, respectively, to round out the Mountaineers in double digits.

The Mountaineers overcame a subpar shooting half in the opening half, as the Black and Gold knocked down just 35.5% () from the field. However, in the second half, Appalachian sizzled shooting the basketball, connecting on 55.6% () from the field.

One of the staples of Dustin Kerns’ teams during his time in Boone has been their stellar play on the defensive end of the floor, and that was evident in last Wednesday night’s road win at ETSU, limiting the Bucs to 45.3% (24-of-53) shooting from the field for the game, while limiting the Bucs to 39.1% (9-of-23) shooting effort from three-point range in the road win.

The win marked Appalachian’s first in Johnson City since Feb. 9, 2005, as the Mountaineers picked up what was an important 95-73 North Division road win in a season in which the Apps would go on to share the regular-season divisional crown, along with Chattanooga.

That win over the Bucs was built on the backs of players like guard Nathan Cranford, center Jeremy Clayton, and point guard D.J. Thompson under the direction of former head coach Houston Fancher. The Mountaineers would end up finishing out the campaign with a respectable 18-12 overall record, which included a 9-7 league mark under former head coach Houston Fancher.

A Closer Look at Appalachian State

App State came into the 2022-23 basketball season with some measured, but optimistic expectations for what is now Dustin Kerns’ fourth season at the helm of the basketball program in the High Country. In the Sun Belt preseason basketball poll conducted by the league’s coaches and media, the Black and Gold were selected to finish seventh by the league’s head coaches.

The Mountaineers have been led in scoring by a cagy veteran, in the ever-athletic Donovan Gregory so far this season, as he is averaging 14.6 PPG and 4.6 RPG playing essentially the four for the Mountaineers this season. Gregory is one of just one of two starters that returned to the fold for the 2022-23 season.

The 6-5 forward is strong and athletic but was held to just seven points against the Paladins last season, however, put forth a solid statistical line at end of the night. Along with his seven points on a 3-for-4 effort from the field, Gregory added six rebounds, four assists and recorded a pair of steals in the eight-point road loss.

So far this season, Gregory has posted double-figure scoring efforts in all seven games for the Apps this season, which includes a season-high 21-point effort in a loss to Campbell. Gregory started 29 of 31 games as a junior for the Apps last season, and not only is he leading the team in scoring, but also paces the Mountaineers in rebound average (4.6), steals (13) and assists (26) so far in the early portion of the season. Gregory is a comparable player to that of Furman’s Jalen Slawson. Gregory is shooting 44.3% (35-of-79) from the field this season and is connecting on 33.3% of his three-point shots (3-for-9).

In fact, the Mountaineers really lose four starters to graduation if you consider that Eads, who started in Greenville against the Paladins, started only three games the entire season. The Apps must replace three of their top four scorers from a year ago.

Kerns has gone about developing a nice crop of young players, and that’s why the Mountaineers shouldn’t fall too far in the Sun Belt Conference hoops pecking order following their championship run a couple of years ago.

Along with Gregory and Michael Eads Jr (0.8 PPG, 1.0 RPG), the Apps also have junior forward CJ Huntley (9.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG) back, as well as guards Terence Harcum (10.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG), Xavion Brown (4.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and Andrew Muse (6.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG). Those five players form the key leadership council of the 2022-23 edition of the Mountaineer basketball team.

Christopher Mantis (5.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG), who saw action in 23 of 31 games in the 2021-22 season for the Mountaineers, will provide depth in the frontcourt.

Kerns will be largely reliant on a talented recruiting class, which includes four key transfers, with three of those players–forward Dibaji Walker (8.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and guards Tyree Boykin (12.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and Tamell Pearson (3.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG) –all being grad senior transfers.

The trio have proven to be important editions during Appalachian’s 5-3 start to the season. The fourth is Northwestern State transfer guard Carvell Teasett (3.6 PPG, 1.3 RPG), who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Walker, a 6-9, 200-lb transfer from UMass, logged action in 39 games over two seasons for the Minutemen, and prior to that, played one season at Cleveland State.

The native of Charlotte, N.C., where he starred at Independence High School, and all told in his 63 games as a collegiate basketball player at both UMass and Cleveland State, Walker has posted 301-career points, 132 rebounds, and 34 assists. He will provide some skill, size, experience and strength in the post, which maybe the Apps have lacked in previous seasons combined in one player under Kerns.

Boykin, a 6-1, 190-lb guard from Clarksville, Tenn., will also have one year of eligibility remaining after playing four years at Union University–a member of the NCAA Division II prestigious Gulf South Conference.

Like Walker, Boykin figures to provide immediate impact in the Mountaineer lineup, with the likelihood of entering the 2022-23 season as a starter. During his final season at Union, he was a first-team all-conference performer, while also being named Gulf South Player of the Year.

In his career at Union, the talented guard finished tallying 1,689-career points, 241 rebounds, and dished out 190 assists. The addition of Boykin gives Kerns an immediate and prolific scorer to help counter the loss of Justin Forrest and Michael Almonacy in the backcourt.

Tamell Pearson (3.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG) is the Mountaineers’ 6-10, 223-lb starting center, and prior to finding his way to the High Country, spent two seasons at both UAB and Western Illinois before settling as a graduate transfer at App State for his final season of eligibility. Person led WIU in field goal percentage in 2021-22 and turned in some outstanding performances during his final season in Macomb, Ill, which included a 21-point, 11-rebound effort against Oral Roberts.

The final transfer that has made an immediate impact for the Apps this season is Northwestern State transfer Carvell Teasett. The 6-1 guard has the potential to be another scorer, much like Boykin. Teasett ins a combo guard that made an impact in his two seasons playing for the Demons.

In 52-career games at Northwestern State, Teasett scored 548 points, dished out 138 assists and recorded 44 steals. He proved to be a good outside shooter for the Demons, finishing his two seasons by knocking down a combined 104 three-point field goals, including a team-leading 61 triples during the 2021-22 season.

As a team to this point in the 2022-23 campaign, the Mountaineers currently rank fifth in the 14-team Sun Belt Conference in scoring offense (80.6 PPG), while ranking 12th in scoring defense (69.4 PPG).

In terms of shooting the basketball, the Mountaineers are connecting on 44.6% of their shots from the field to rank 11th in the Sun Belt in field goal percentage. From long range, the Apps are connecting at a 36.2% clip through seven games, which also ranks 11th in the SBC.

Kerns’ specialty is getting his teams to respond defensively, which during his time in Boone, has been something the Mountaineers have hung their collective hats on with regularity.

Through the first seven games this season, that is once again been a staple of Appalachian basketball, as the Black and Gold enters Tuesday night’s clash with the Paladins ranking fourth in field goal percentage defense (39.4%) and rank second overall in the SBC in blocked shots (36 blocks/5.1 BPG).

SoCon vs. Sun Belt in 2022-23

The SoCon has yet to garner a victory against the Sun Belt in the young 2022-23 basketball season, having gone 0-4 to this point in the season. Those four matchups have seen preseason SBC favorite Louisiana take a close 81-77 win over East Tennessee State in the championship game of the Asheville Tournament. Georgia State also handed Mercer an 85-83 overtime setback, while Old Dominion knocked off Furman, 82-77, in the Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic, and finally the aforementioned App State recent 74-70 triumph at ETSU just last week.

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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