MCGILL: Herd Hoops Heads to Big Dance with High Hopes
The Word on the Herd -- March 11, 2018
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Whatever Greg Gumbel said after “Marshall” flashed on the two large screens on the court inside the Henderson Center on Selection Sunday never made it to the ears of the thousand or so fans in the building.
When the Thundering Herd men’s basketball team, automatic qualifiers for this weekend’s NCAA tournament, learned of its seed, opponent and tournament site, the exuberance of a fan base that had experienced three decades without a spot in the bracket roared through the building. The players, after capturing the Conference USA championship about 20 hours earlier in Frisco, Texas, held their cell phones and recorded the moment. They leapt out of their folding chairs, lined in two rows between the massive screens and the screaming fans behind them.
The bracket reveal continued on TBS, but the sea of Kelly green moved to the court for pictures and autographs. Some started researching flights and checking ticket prices. Others, some who were here in 1987 – the last time Marshall experienced March Madness – soaked in a moment that never seemed like it would revisit.
“It was exciting then,” said longtime Marshall fan Chandos Peak, “and it is exciting now. Back then we waited for the news report to find out who we were playing. This is great for the university, the players and the fans.”
Here are the details: Marshall, seeded No. 13 in the East Region, will play fourth-seeded Wichita State this Friday at 1:20 p.m. on TNT. That means there will be breakfast and basketball for the Herd, which will tip off with the Shockers at 10:20 a.m. on the West Coast inside San Diego State University’s 12,414-seat Viejas Arena in San Diego, California. At that moment, the Herd hoops program will end a 31-year, four-day dry spell from the grandest stage in college basketball. A total of 291 different college programs danced into the big bracket from 1988 through last year’s 68-team event.
Trivia: Bon Jovi had the No. 1 song on the charts the last time Marshall played in the NCAA tournament. Gas was 89 cents per gallon and stamps were 24 cents. MU head hoops coach Dan D’Antoni was coaching at Socastee High School and Athletic Director Mike Hamrick was an assistant AD at Illinois State.
“It is a historic moment for Marshall University, the athletic department and the basketball program,” Hamrick said. “There is a lot of excitement for what all of our teams are accomplishing right now, but this is a significant moment for a basketball program with a rich history. We are proud of what our student-athletes and coaches have accomplished so far and can’t wait to see what happens when the ball is tipped.”
Marshall (24-10) is headed to its sixth NCAA tournament. Wichita State, meanwhile, is in the field for the seventh consecutive year. The Shockers are 25-7 this season, and all of their losses came against teams that finished with a winning record. Wichita State has become a March darling, highlighted by a 2013 run to the Final Four. Including that year, the Shockers have defeated a team with a better seed six times.
Wichita State, coached by former MU assistant Gregg Marshall and assisted by former Herd head coach Donnie Jones, won eight of 10 games to finish the season. Both losses were to nationally ranked teams in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers finished in third place in the American Athletic Conference, its first year in the league after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference.
Meanwhile, the Herd enters as winners of 10 of the last 12 and coming off a C-USA championship.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Marshall junior guard Jon Elmore said, “so we like our chances.”
There have been 26 wins by the 13 seed against the 4 seed since 1985. The last time occurred in 2016 when Hawaii defeated California. Before that, there was a six-year run from 2008-13 of at least one 13 vs. 4 “upset” in the opening round.
FiveThirtyEight, a website that specializes in statistical analysis, gives the Herd a nine percent chance of beating Wichita State and a one percent chance of surviving the first four days of the three-week event. The selection committee ranked Marshall No. 54 among the 68 teams. It is unlikely many people outside of the Mountain State will have the Herd busting brackets.
That’s OK. As one could see in the moments after Kellogg announced Marshall in the bracket, it is obvious the players and the passionate fan base who supports them aren’t interested in listening. This week is about being heard.