And what a jump it is.
Furman comes to Freedom Hall for a 4 p.m. tip and it’s a chance for each team to make a statement early in the SoCon schedule.
The Paladins come in 12-1 with wins over two of last season’s Final Four teams, Villanova and Loyola.
“Their team is playing with confidence and playing together,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “I’d say right now they have to be the team to beat. They’ve had the best non-conference of all the teams in the SoCon. They have the best win and right now they have the best player.”
That player would be Matt Rafferty, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.2 rebounds a game.
“If you had to pick the conference player of the year right now, he’s ranked in the top 10 in nine different individual categories, eight of those in the top five,” Forbes said.
Furman, 1-0 in the SoCon, was ranked in the Associated Press and Coaches polls until losing to LSU in its last game. The Paladins are ranked third in the latest Mid-Major poll, trailing only Gonzaga and Buffalo.
“I actually wanted them to beat LSU so they could come in here undefeated,” ETSU guard Patrick Good said. “It didn’t happen, but it shows how prestigious the Southern Conference is. Game in and game out, anybody can win.”
All the national attention has put a target on the backs of the Paladins.
“People look at them now like they’re better than most other teams in the conference,” ETSU junior forward Jeromy Rodriguez said. “We have to go out there and show them what we’ve got.”
ETSU is 10-4 and is coming off two big wins in the Sun Bowl tournament. The Bucs are 0-1 in the SoCon after losing to Wofford in an early league game.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Forbes said. “We just have to continue on that path.”
A LOOK BACK
The leadup to Saturday’s game has a similar feel to a 1991 matchup between the two schools in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Bucs had risen to 10th in the AP national rankings and came into the game on Feb. 11, 1991, with an 18-2 record. Furman won 104-93 and ETSU left the court to a rousing cheer of “overrated” from the Paladins fans.
ETSU went on to win the SoCon tournament before falling to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament. The Bucs wound up ranked 17th in the final AP poll.
ETSU leads the all-time series 30-27. The Bucs won two of three against the Paladins last season, including a one-point victory in Greenville when Desonta Bradford scored right before the buzzer. Furman won the regular-season finale when a win would have given the Bucs a share of the Southern Conference title.
ETSU also beat Furman in the SoCon tournament.
“We haven’t had a bad game with them since we’ve gotten together,” Forbes said. “We have a lot of respect for their program. Their kids play hard, they play together. It should be a hard fought game.”
Rodriguez leads the conference at 11.7 rebounds per game. Rafferty is second, so a highly contested battle is expected to take place under the basket.
“I’m just going to play hard and do what I do,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody goes through the scouting report and knows what you do, so you just have to play hard.”
Furman’s Jordan Lyons tied an NCAA record earlier this season when he made 15 shots from 3-point range against North Greenville. His 34 attempts were the most ever by a Division I player.
Lyons leads the Paladins in scoring at 17.8 points per game.
The Bucs only have three players averaging in double figures, but they spread the wealth well. Seven are scoring at least seven a game.
Tray Boyd III leads the way at 12.1 points per game, barely cracking the top 20 in the SoCon. Good is next at 11.2 and Rodriguez averages 11.1.
ETSU continues to lead the SoCon in attendance, averaging 3,563 fans per game at Freedom Hall. That’s 1,221 more per game than the next best, Chattanooga,
“This is a big, big, big-time game for us,” Rodriguez said. “We’re hoping for a lot of fans to come out and support us.”