Furman heads to Chattanooga for huge SoCon Matchup

The Date and Time: Jan. 18, 2023, 7 p.m. EST

The Game: Furman (13-6, 4-2 SoCon) at Chattanooga (11-8, 3-3 SoCon)

The Venue and Location: Chattanooga, Tenn./McKenzie Arena (10,995)

The Coaches: Furman-Bob Richey (124-52, 6th yr)/Chattanooga-Dan Earl (84-147, 8th yr)

Series: 95th all-time meeting/Chattanooga leads 57-37

Brief Preview: Furman and Chattanooga both are coming off heartbreaking losses as the two teams blew double-digit second half leads in setbacks to UNC Greensboro and Samford, respectively, as both the Paladins and Mocs dropped a little further behind in the Southern Conference standings. With Furman’s loss to the Spartans, it makes Wednesday night’s game against the Mocs a paramount game, as the consensus league favorite will look to fall no further behind in the SoCon standings.

Chattanooga surrendered what had been a 19-point second-half lead only to drop a heartbreaking 75-74 contest to Samford, while Furman saw UNCG whittle away its 13-point second half lead and eventually overcame the Paladins, 88-80, in overtime before a sellout crowd at Timmons Arena.

The Paladins lost all three games to the Mocs last season, which included a 64-63 setback in the championship game of the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville. The Paladins also fell in matchups in Chattanooga (L, 69-71) and Greenville (L, 58-64). Prior to those three-straight losses last season, the Paladins had put together one of its best runs in the all-time series between the two, having won eight-straight in the series. In fact, when former Chattanooga head coach Lamont Paris led to Chattanooga to a 71-69 win over Furman in the Scenic City last season, it marked Paris’ first-ever win against Richey in what was his fifth season at the helm of the Chattanooga basketball program.

Though the Mocs have had plenty of transition–both in leadership and among players that have either graduated or transferred out of the program–they still remain among the SoCon’s elite basketball programs, having been picked to finish second in the conference by the league’s media, while the coaches selected the Mocs to finish fourth in the preseason poll.

The Mocs lost a total of four starters: G-Malachi Smith (19.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG), G-David Jean-Baptiste (14.3 PPG), C-Silvio De Sousa (11.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and Darius Banks (8.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG) to either graduation or transfer. The Mocs also graduated the oldest player in college basketball, in Josh Ayeni (4.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG), who was invaluable in last season’s championship run. Smith entered the transfer portal in late April of last year and ended up at Gonzaga, where in his most-recent game led the Bulldogs with 27 points, which included seven three-pointers, in what was a resounding 117-75 win over the Portland Pilots. Smith, who was the 2022 SoCon Player of the Year, is averaging 8.9 PPG and 3.5 RPG this season for the ‘Zags and is averaging 20.2 minutes-per-game for the Bulldogs, however, has yet to make a start in 19 contests this season.

Chattanooga is of course under new leadership this season, as following the Mocs’ NCAA Tournament loss to Illinois a year ago, Lamont Paris moved on to become the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, UTC Director of Athletics Mark Wharton moved quickly to get his man to take over the basketball program, as he found his coach within the Southern Conference, in former VMI head coach Dan Earl.

Earl and the Mocs, much like Furman, have been through their fair share of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ this season. And while the Mocs have plenty of new faces, there are still some key holdovers from that championship team of last season. Players like Grant Ledford (1.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG), AJ Caldwell (4.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and KC Hankton (2.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG) were three key pieces of that title team of a year ago, with only Caldwell and Hankton seeing quality minutes for Chattanooga this season.

While Caldwell has started all 19 games this season for the Mocs, both Ledford and Hankton have battled injuries and now that they are healthy, have struggled to find minutes. Both Ledford and Hankton have had big games against the Paladins in the past, with Ledford posting a key 13 points off the bench in last season’s meeting in Chattanooga, as the Mocs prevailed, 71-69, while Hankton had a key game against the Paladins in late December of 2020 in the meeting in the Scenic City, as he posted 17 points in 24 minutes of action of the UTC bench in what was a 77-73 Furman win.

The focus of this Mocs team, however, is centered around its center-literally-and that is Jake Stephens (21.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG, ), who is the leading candidate to claim SoCon Player of the Year honors this season. Stephens has already won the league’s Player of the Week award six times this season. If he indeed follows through and wins the SoCon Player of the Year Award, he will become the second-straight Moc to accomplish the feat, with Smith garnering both the coaches and media SoCon Player of the Year honor last season. It would mark the first time in Chattanooga’s rich Southern Conference history that it has had a player to earn the honor in back-to-back years.

But first things first, and while Stephens leads the SoCon in scoring and rebounding, he would be the first to tell you I’m sure that winning and more importantly, helping the Mocs defend their Southern Conference title is important. Just like he was the previous three years at VMI, Stephens is once again the main cog of Earl’s motion offense. For Furman fans, a better and accurate comparison I think is Matt Rafferty. Stephens is a taller version, and a better perimeter shooting version of the former Paladin star.

Stephens even has back-to-back 35-point, 10-rebound games this season, accomplishing that rare feat in back-to-back wins over VMI and Western Carolina. He became the first time since 2019 to pull off that rare accomplishment. Against his former team, Stephens posted 37 points and 15 rebounds in what was an 85-78 win over the Keydets a week-and-a-half ago. Last week against Western Carolina, Stephens posted 35 points and 10 rebounds in the 95-76 win over the Mocs. All told, Stephens has scored 30 or more points in four games this season for the Mocs.

In addition to what he does as a scorer in the paint and on the glass, he is also a proficient long-range shooter, having connected on 42 three-pointers already this season, ranking seventh in the SoCon in that particular category. His 41.6% (42-of-101) shooting clip from long range this season also ranks Stephens ninth in three-point field goal percentage. Stephens is also an outstanding distributor of the basketball for the Mocs, as he is averaging 3.6 assists-per-game.

From a national perspective, Stephens ranks up there with some of the best centers in all of college basketball. For instance, Stephens is the only player in NCAA Division I college basketball to average 20 or more points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game not named Zach Edey (Purdue).

If the season were to end right now, Stephens would be the first player in NCAA Division I basketball to finish a season averaging 20 PPG, 10 RPG, 3 APG and 2 BPG since Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan was able to accomplish that feat during the 1996-97 season (special to thanks to UTC Sports Information Director Corey Belonzi for that stat via OptaStats).

When Stephens and the Mocs are working with cohesion, Chattanooga can play some beautiful offensive basketball at times, which is a far cry from some of the grinders Mocs fans might have become accustomed to under Lamont Paris.

Stephens is coming off another solid performance in Chattanooga’s most recent road setback at Samford, posting 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a pair of steals.

While Stephens draws most of the attention, the supporting cast for the Mocs is also pretty good. And to find that supporting cast, Earl had to do something he wasn’t all that accustomed to doing, which is finding talent from the transfer portal.

He brought in the well-traveled Jamal Johnson (13.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG), who has spent time in his career at both Auburn and UAB. Johnson loves the three ball and is not shy about letting them fly from long range. So far this season, no Moc has shot more (129) or made more (51) three-pointers this season.

The 6-5 senior guard averaged 9.4 PPG during his time at Auburn and transferred out of UAB after not getting the desired amount of playing time. He finds himself as an integral part of the backcourt for the Mocs this season and has started all 19 games for the Mocs this season. He is shooting an impressive 39.5% from long-range this season.

Rounding out the backcourt for the Mocs as a part of the starting five will be point guard Dalvin White (9.2 PPG, 3.2 APG), who transferred in from USC Upstate, as well as the old reliable AJ Caldwell. If there was an award for the league’s top “glue guy”, Caldwell would your guy. He can shoot and he’s also one of the team’s top defenders.

Rounding out the starting five for UTC will be Demetrius Davis (8.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who has a good combination of athleticism and a soft touch around the basket. Davis is highly skilled and like Stephens, a good distributor of the basketball.

White is an underrated point guard in a league that has several really good ones. Like Stephens, he is a tremendous facilitator and those two keep the ball snapping around and rarely do you see Dan Earl’s teams get stagnant offensively.

Off the bench, the Mocs look to basically four guys off the bench. Houston Baptist transfer and junior guard Khristion Courseault (5.8 PPG, 1.2 RPG), forward Randy Brady (4.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG), guard Jamaal Walker (5.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG), and wing KC Hankton (1.9 PPG, 0.5 APG) are the primary players off the bench for UTC. Walker was a member of last year’s team but had to sit out most of the season due to blood clots.

Statistical comparisons

The Mocs bring in one of the top offensive teams in the Southern Conference into the midweek clash with the Paladins. The Mocs rank second in the SoCon in scoring offense (79.4 PPG), as well as entering Wednesday night’s contest ranking fourth in the league in field goal percentage (46.5%).

What do the Mocs do well offensively? Dan Earl-coached teams never shy away from shooting the three, and this season has been no different no matter the locale being a little different. Much like his VMI teams over the past few years, Chattanooga finds itself ranking first nationally in three-pointers made-per-game (11.9), while its 226 made triples this season ranks tied for first nationally with the Liberty Flames. The Mocs also rank 26th nationally in three-point field goal percentage, knocking down 38.3% (226-of-590) from three-point range land this season. The Mocs attempt 31.1 three-point field goals per game, which is second nationally.

On the defensive end of the floor, the Mocs enter Wednesday night’s contest sixth overall in the SoCon in scoring defense (69.6 PPG), while boasting the league’s second-best field goal percentage defense, as the Mocs are surrendering just 41.6% from the field to opponents through its first 19 games this season. The Mocs rank sixth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage defense (34.6%).

Furman on the other hand brings a team to the Scenic City, which ranks 19th nationally and tops overall in the Southern Conference in scoring offense (81.9 PPG), sixth nationally and tops in the SoCon in assists-per-game (18.6), while also ranking fourth in the nation in effective field goal percentage (57.8%). The Paladins also rank 11th nationally and top the SoCon in total field goal percentage (49.6%), 14th overall and third in the Southern Conference in three-pointers made per game (9.9/189 triples) and also lead the SoCon and rank 14th nationally in assist/turnover ratio (1.5).

Defensively, the Paladins ranking eighth in the SoCon in scoring defense (72.2 PPG), ninth in field goal percentage defense (45.3%), and ninth in three-point field goal percentage defense (35.9%) through 19 games this season.

Due primarily to having Stephens in the middle alone, the Mocs bring the league’s top rebounding team into the clash, leading the SoCon in rebounding margin (+5.6), while the Paladins rank seventh among the league’s 12 teams so far this season in the same category (+2.3).

Miscellaneous

-Chattanooga is 7-0 this season when shooting 40% or better from three-point range and just 4-8 when being held to less than 40% shooting from long-range.

-Furman is 81-9 under head coach Bob Richey when scoring 77 or more points in a game.

Losses: at The Citadel (L, 92-100 OT/Feb. 1, 2018)

at UNC Greensboro (L, 79-89/Jan. 12, 2019)

at Auburn (L, 78-81 OT/Dec. 5, 2019)

at Alabama (L, 80-83/Dec. 15, 2020)

vs. VMI (L, 90-91 OT/Mar. 6, 2021)

at Belmont (L, 89-95 OT/Nov. 15, 2021)

at Winthrop (L, 80-85/Dec. 7, 2021)

vs. Old Dominion (L, 77-82/Nov. 18, 2022 at Charleston Classic)

vs. High Point (L, 82-85/Dec. 6, 2022)

vs. UNCG (L, 80-88 OT/Jan. 14, 2023)

–Furman is 12-4 in the 2022-23 season when scoring 70 or more points, while having posted a 1-2 mark when falling short of the 70-point threshold this season.

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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