March 11, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Marshall knows the drill. It’s been there, and almost done that.
After finishing in a tie for ninth place in the 12-team Conference USA men’s basketball race, the Thundering Herd (13-18, 6-10) heads for the C-USA Tournament trying to top what it did a year ago.
Coach Tom Herrion’s team traveled to Tulsa, Okla., on Monday, in need of four wins in four days to turn in the kind of March Madness that Liberty (15-20) did in the Big South Conference final on Sunday, and what Manhattan (14-17) was trying to accomplish Monday night in the Metro Atlantic tournament title game.
That would be to flip a subpar season into an NCAA Tournament ticket to the “First Four” next week in Dayton, Ohio. A year ago at Memphis, the Herd won three in a row before falling to the host Tigers for an automatic NCAA berth.
Marshall is still looking for its first 3+ game winning streak in a season that has befuddled many more than Herrion – and that was back as November became December. So, has the third-year Herd coach brought out the “this is a new season” speech yet?
“Yeah, but so have 300-and-some other coaches in the country,” Herrion said. “It’s that time of the year, a fresh start for everybody. Every team going into Tulsa in our league and all the tournaments going on and that have gone on, we’ve seen that.
“It’s tournament play. We’ve got to worry about us. We were in the championship game 12 months ago. We know our route is four wins and in order to handle that, our first game is Tulane (18-13, 6-10). You can’t get to a second opportunity unless you pass the first. We’ve got a great challenge.
“It’s one at a time, as simple as it sounds, as mundane as that may be.”
The ninth-seeded Herd opens in the 9:30 (EDT) nightcap of Wednesday’s first-round tripleheader at the BOK Center against the Green Wave, which defeated Marshall 91-75 in New Orleans back on Feb. 6. The winner gets top-seeded 20th-ranked Memphis (27-4, 16-0) in a 7 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal. The Tigers have won 23 straight C-USA games, dating to last regular-season.
Including the aforementioned Liberty, seven teams with sub-.500 records have advanced to the Big Dance since 2002. A year ago, the Herd was the No. 6 seed, and beat an 11, 3 and 2 before falling to top-seeded Memphis.
“After doing that, it gives us confidence going in this time,” said Herd junior point guard DeAndre Kane, selected by conference coaches to the All-C-USA second team for a second straight year on Monday. “Last year we came in as lower seed last year and we played four games, played a lot of ball and made the championship.
“Right now, our focus on Tulane and what they do.”
The Herd is coming off an 86-79 loss at East Carolina last Saturday, but Marshall’s offensive fortunes have improved of late. It’s the Herd defense that needs tightening, Herrion and Kane said. In the last three games (losses at Houston and ECU sandwiching a home win over Southern Miss), the Herd has allowed 103, 84 and 86 points.
In the last two outings, Marshall has shot .551 and .492 percentages, but opponents have hit .519 and .522. What’s also turned for the Herd is its free throw shooting. After season-long woes at the stripe, Marshall has made 59-of-78 (.756) in the last three games.
“At East Carolina, we didn’t get quality stops when needed,” Herrion said. “Those (USM and ECU) are two good offensive clubs, make no mistake about it, but clearly our defense is not where we need it to be. We’re addressing that going into the tournament. We have to get better at both ends of the floor.
“We’re playing well offensively right now, our shot selection, execution, is really good from that perspective. But it obviously helps when the ball goes in the basket, when we make shots.
“Free throws, we’ve done a good job, gotten better at it, kids have done a good job staying with it, working at it. The staff has done a good job making some adjustments and changes when needed. We’re shooting them with a lot more confidence right now.”
Kane had five steals in Saturday’s loss, moving him to 128 for his career and into the MU career top 10. The Pittsburgh native joins former Herd star Skip Henderson as the only players to reach the top 15 in scoring and top 10 in assists and steals in a Herd career.
He also ranks eighth in the nation in assists this season (7.1 per game) after making the transition from two-guard when the Herd needed a point man.
Kane said Marshall’s “initial defense has been great some times, but we let teams score too many points off turnovers and offensive rebounds. We just can’t get that rebound we need, or we turn it over and then they’re going the other way in transition and we don’t get back. We know that. I think we’ll be working a lot on help defense before the tournament.”
Defense figures to be crucial for the Herd in the first-round game. Tulane, which has lost four in a row to finish the regular season, ranks in a tie for fourth nationally (with Iowa State) at 80.1 points per game. Only Northwestern State, Iona and Indiana are scoring more per game.
Marshall has struggled away from the friendly confines of the Cam Henderson Center, going 2-14 in road and neutral site games. The only two victories came at UCF last month and in mid-November at Hofstra, against Division II District of Columbia.
In the MU loss at Tulane, the Green Wave built a 59-35 halftime and the Herd couldn’t get any closer than 14 points the rest of the way. Junior forward Josh Davis, a 6-foot-7 NC State transfer, had a Tulane double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds. He was named to the All-C-USA first team Monday.
Asked what his team learned in that loss that might help the Herd in the tournament opener, Herrion didn’t hesitate with his response.
“We were so bad, but I’m stating the obvious,” the Herd coach said. “Give (Tulane) credit, but we’ve got to play at a more highly competitive level. I thought we got pushed around, they were more physical than us, and they had a stretch at the end of the first half and the game got away from us.
“We’ve got to play at a more competitive level from a physicality standpoint. They’re going to cause problems with their speed and quickness. They spread you out in their offense, drive you, get to the foul line.
“Davis is a really talented kid, fourth-year junior, came from the ACC, and he’s gotten better. He’s real versatile, a hard guy to match. He drives you, he posts you and is a phenomenal offensive rebounder.”
Kane said the Herd “couldn’t stop Davis, we’ve just got to do a better job guarding him, and (guard Ricky) Tarrant. We’ve got to do what we can do, and execute.”
Kane knows the odds are against the Herd, but he’s been buoyed by what he’s seen on TV.
“I’ve been watching ESPN and there have been a lot of upsets in tournaments,” he said. “Hopefully for us, something like that can happen. We’ve got to make it happen.”
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There is precedence for a No. 9 seed to reach the C-USA title game, but it occurred before Marshall joined the league in 2005-06. St. Louis won the title as a No. 9 in 2000, and UAB was a runner-up as a ninth seed in 2003 … In 17 C-USA tournaments, a team without a first-round bye has made the final eight times, with four winning titles … The top seed has won nine tournaments. No second seed has a title … Nine in the 11-team field (UCF is ineligible) will be going for a first title. Only Memphis (6) and Houston (1) have won C-USA titles in the 2013 bracket … This is the fourth time in its eight C-USA seasons that Marshall has been in the 8-9 first-round game. The Herd is 5-7 in tourney history … MU ranks third nationally in free throw attempts (778), behind only LIU-Brooklyn (835) and Villanova (831) … Marshall, with 141 blocked shots, needs five to move into second place in Herd single-season history. The 1989-90 team had 145, trailing only the Hassan Whiteside-led 2009-10 club that swatted away 268.