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MCGILL: Herd Hoops Players Relish Madness of March

Ryan Taylor.
March 8, 2017

By Chuck McGill

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.Ryan Taylor was a teenager when he witnessed the magic of March Madness up close.

The 2006 Final Four invaded Taylor’s backyard at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. College basketball’s championship semifinal was in Taylor’s hometown, and he wasn’t going to miss it. He went to practices for Florida and LSU and saw the Bruins’ Arron Afflalo and the Tigers’ Glenn Davis in person.

Also among the last four standing in the big bracket was No. 11 seed George Mason, which had pulled four consecutive upsets to reach the Final Four: No. 6 Michigan State, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 Connecticut. It was a lesson to Taylor, one of Marshall’s three seniors.

In March, anything can happen.

“It doesn’t matter what the seed is,” he said.

Wednesday, under the bright lights here inside Legacy Arena, sixth-seeded Marshall (17-14) will start its four-games-in-four-days march against No. 11 Florida Atlantic (10-19) at 9 p.m., the last of four Conference USA tournament games in the first round. If the Thundering Herd advances – it defeated the Owls, 89-72, in their only regular season meeting – No. 3 seed Old Dominion awaits in Thursday’s quarterfinals (also a 9 p.m. tipoff).



“We’ve seen every team in the conference now; we know what everyone is capable of,” said junior guard Jon Elmore, who was named to the C-USA all-conference first team this week. “We’ve played in spurts all year but we’ve shown glimpses of being really, really good. It’s about getting hot at the right time.”

Marshall finished 4-6 in its last 10 games, so it is hoping to regain the momentum from the beginning of the conference slate. The Herd started the season 4-0 in the league and 6-2 after eight games, including the 17-point road win against FAU.

There is precedent for the Herd to make a run from its current position. It was five years ago this month when the 2011-12 Marshall hoops team, also seeded sixth in the C-USA tournament, defeated teams seeded 11th, third and second to reach the finals. That MU team was stopped one win short of an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

The Herd hopes to use its pace as an advantage in a tournament format. Marshall is averaging 86.4 points per game, which would break the C-USA single-season team scoring record it set last season (86.0). The Herd ranks sixth nationally in scoring.

“I think one of the things we do well is we grind teams down and wear them out with the speed and tempo we play with,” Elmore said. “We are capable of making a deep run because of the way we’ve prepared.”

“We’ve been practicing and playing like this the entire season,” Taylor added. “We are ready for this because of our conditioning.”

Marshall is 6-6 in the C-USA tournament in the past six seasons, including the finals appearance in 2012 and semifinal appearance last season. The Herd has held its own as the better seed in the matchup, with no losses to a lower seeded team since the 2011 tournament, when host Tulsa beat fourth-seeded MU after the Herd received a first round bye.

“This is when all of the marbles are on the line,” Elmore said. “You win and advance, you lose and go home.”

Most players have been preparing for this moment long before their college basketball careers began. Elmore remembers sitting with his father, filling out an NCAA tournament bracket and watching the upsets pile up. Taylor remembers sitting with his friends and classmates as the madness ensued on television.

“In high school some of my teachers would actually turn on the games while we had class,” Taylor said. “I’ve filled out brackets since I was 10 or 11, so I always knew how big March Madness was.”

And they’ve all witnessed how maddening, for better or worse, it can all be.

“This is the dream, man,” Elmore said. “I’ve grown up seeing all of the buzzer-beaters and the underdogs. That’s the story of this month. It’s the teams that are counted out that make a run and beat all of these teams and move on. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Conference USA men’s basketball tournament schedule:

Wednesday, March 8 (all times Eastern)

12:30 p.m. – (9) UTSA vs. (8) WKU

3 p.m. – (12) Southern Mississippi vs. (5) Rice

6:30 p.m. – (10) Charlotte vs. (7) UAB

9 p.m. – (11) Florida Atlantic vs. (6) Marshall

Thursday, March 9

12:30 p.m. – WKU/UTSA winner vs. (1) Middle Tennessee

3 p.m. – Rice/Southern Miss winner vs. (4) UTEP

6:30 p.m. – UAB/Charlotte winner vs. (2) Louisiana Tech

9 p.m. – Marshall/FAU winner vs. (3) Old Dominion

Friday, March 10

12:30 p.m. – Semifinal #1

3 p.m. – Semifinal #2

Saturday, March 11

8:30 p.m. -- Championship