Despite the return of their best player, the Furman Paladins dropped their first game of the season Thursday night to the Charlotte 49ers 77-68. Senior guard Stephen Croone poured in 17 points in his season debut, and the Paladins led 34-29 at half, but they could not overcome their 21 turnovers in the loss. Freshman forward Matt Rafferty recorded his second double of the season, scoring 10 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.
While Croone was healing from his thumb surgery, head coach Niko Medved's squad put together two inspiring performances to start off the season 2-0. Against Presbyterian, Furman went to the free-throw line 39 times and won the rebounding battle 50-29 in a 63-53 victory. In his Furman debut, Rafferty scored 17 points and recorded 10 rebounds off the bench. In their second game of the season, the Paladins pulled away late in a 79-70 victory over Appalachian State. Rafferty, again, was the team's high scorer with 19 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore guard Devin Sibley put in 18 points while shooting 4-for-5 from three.
Believe it or not, the Paladins are a quarter of the way to matching their regular season win total from last year. Furman had eight total wins at the end of the regular season (eight!) before making a Cinderella run to the final of the Southern Conference Tournament. Unfortunately, Wofford put an end to the magic, defeating Furman 67-64 in the final. Croone averaged 17.8 points per game during the conference tournament including an impressive 17-point, 14-rebound performance in a 52-49 semifinal victory against defending champion Mercer.
Statistically, the Paladins' success has come on defense and on the boards. They are averaging 42.0 rebounds per game as a team and are only allowing 66.7 points per game, which both rank in the top third in the nation. Offensively, Furman has been struggling. The Paladins are averaging 70 points per game, which is among the worst in the nation and are only shooting 40.3 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from behind the arc.
Through three games, Medved has taken advantage of his deep bench, playing seven players over 20 minutes per game and 11 over 10 minutes per game. Some players of note that did not make it into the Key Players section include junior Kris Acox, senior Kendrec Ferrara and sophomore Geoff Beans. Acox and Ferrara are both great rebounders and Ferrara led the team in blocks a season ago. Beans is not off to a great start, shooting just 3-for-11 from downtown, but he has the Gus Johnson "Microwave" effect where he can get real hot real quick.
#14 Stephen Croone, Senior, Guard (6-0, 170): Scored 17 points and handed out four assists, but committed four turnovers and four fouls in his season debut in the loss to Charlotte. Croone was sidelined for the first two games of the season after thumb surgery, but has the potential to burst on to the national scene this year. The senior averaged 17.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game last season earning him first team all-conference among the coaches.
#32 Matt Rafferty, Freshman, Forward (6-8, 215): A phenomenal surprise for Medved's team, Rafferty is averaging 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game through three games while shooting 14 of 24 from the field and 2-for-5 from three. With Croone out the first two games, Rafferty has easily been the Paladins' best player as he has recorded two double-doubles in his first three career games. As a high school senior from Hinsdale, Illinois, he was named to second team Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and earned Chicago Tribune All-State Honors.
#12 Devin Sibley, Sophomore, Guard (6-2, 175): The 2014-15 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year, he averaged 10.2 points per game last season while shooting 37.1 percent from behind the arc. Sibley is leading the team in minutes through three games while averaging 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and shooting 10-for-25 from the field and 6-for-11 from three.
#35 Daniel Fowler, Sophomore, Guard (6-4, 195): Fowler's statistics from last season don't jump off the page, but his defense and ability to crash the offensive boards earned him a sport on the freshman all-conference team. The sophomore was the only player to start all 33 games and averaged 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game last season while often times guarding the opponent's best player. So far this season, he is averaging 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 8-for-18 from the field and 2-for-6 from three.
Furman is coached by Niko Medved, who is in his third year with the team where he has compiled a 22-44 record. Before Furman, he was an assistant at Colorado State University for six years where he helped the Rams make multiple NCAA Tournaments. The St. Paul, Minnesota native was also an assistant at Minnesota, Furman and Macalester College. This is Medved's first head coaching job.
For more insight into the Furman Paladins, check out the season preview from SB Nation's Mid-Major Madness