By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Following the announcement here of the 2012-13 Marshall men’s basketball schedule earlier this week, I still have two questions Coach Tom Herrion hasn’t answered:
What, the Heat or Lakers weren’t available?
You couldn’t get U.S. Olympic assistant coach and Herd hoops legend Mike D’Antoni to coax the gold medal team to play at the Garden while you’re up on Long Island at Hofstra?
What about the Brooklyn Nets? New York Knicks?
"Clearly it's a great challenge and clearly a testament to where our program continues to move," Herrion said of the schedule that includes defending NCAA champion Kentucky. "We will be challenged from the get-go, but I think this is where we're at."
I can’t quibble with that remark, other than – and I know these things as a scribe whose career is longer than Yous Mbao’s inseam – I’m going to have to work with the loquacious Herrion about not ending sentences with a preposition.
How impressive, how imposing is the schedule?
Well, it includes UK, Cincinnati, Villanova and West Virginia – none in the Henderson Center, of course, because teams will avoid coming to The Cam in increasing numbers, even with the new air flow and public address systems installed for creature comfort.
It’s more about what Herrion is constructing there.
Consider 6-foot-9 recruit Elijah Pittman of Covington, Ky. Assistant coach Mark Cline (who, by the way, is one of only three West Virginia high school players in Parade All-American history to make the Parade list in two seasons) recruited Pittman. Cline said Pittman is the second-best player he’s landed in his six stops as a Division I assistant.
The best? Blake Griffin.
The Herd is going to face talent and tradition. The aforementioned four schools are among the top 30 all-time in major college basketball victories.
They own a combined 6,899 wins, 58 NCAA regional finals appearances (Elite Eight), 27 Final Fours and 11 NCAA titles.
There are games against quality programs like Nevada – hey, it’s the Sonny Allen Game, player and assistant at Marshall, head coach at the Reno school -- Ohio and South Dakota State, which made its NCAA Tournament debut last March with a 68-60 loss to eventual regional finalist Baylor.
I haven’t even yet mentioned Conference USA play, where a title-contending Herd will duel twice with Memphis, Southern Miss, UCF, etc. … and speaking of NCAA titlists, Danny Manning (Tulsa) and Larry Brown (SMU) will be coaching in the House of Herrion this season.
It’s a good schedule for more reasons than will be judged by the Ratings Percentage Index and its SOS (strength of schedule).
The Herd’s C-USA road slate is more reasonable with two-game trips to Southern Miss/Memphis and Tulane/UAB. After going to Hofstra to finish the 2K Classic with three games in three days (Nov. 16-18), the Herd won’t have to board an aircraft until a Jan. 12 trek to UTEP.
I’ve been asked by a few Herd fans already about how this schedule compares to the one of a year ago, when Marshall finished as the highest RPI team (43rd) that didn’t make the NCAA field, and with SOS rankings of 16 (overall) and an impressive 4 (non-league).
This schedule is potentially tougher. Why do I say that? There are five neutral-site games, compared to one (WVU) last regular season. The Herd went to Cincinnati, Syracuse and Belmont last season. This time, the road includes Villanova, Kentucky and Ohio … and visiting Hofstra (which will be much improved after gaining transfer talent that sat out in 2011-12) is a trap game.
While it’s impossible to predict who’s going to be just how good, mediocre or bad, consider that using last season’s RPI, the Herd’s schedule this regular season includes 12 games against top 70 teams. Of those dozen, four are at home (Nevada, Memphis, UCF, Southern Miss).
Unless one of these expected-quality teams really sinks, the Herd should prosper on the SOS front, because 25 percent of the formula includes your opponents’ opponents.
An early season NCAA-exempt event (four games, counts as one for scheduling limits) involving New Mexico State and the Herd fell apart. The Aggies were going to visit Huntington this season, with the Herd going to Las Cruces in 2013-14.
When the course had to be changed by MU schedule-mix-masters Herrion, Cline and Associate Athletic Director Jeff O’Malley, the Herd ended up with a game at Villanova and three at Hofstra instead of four home dates.
Send out the SOS!
Villanova provides Marshall a great chance to enhance its RPI and SOS numbers. The Wildcats’ SOS was 11 last season, and it won’t be much different this time, playing 18 Big East games (including Syracuse, Pitt, USF and Providence twice), plus Purdue and Alabama (likely) at Madison Square Garden, going to Vanderbilt and Penn (in the Palestra) and facing Temple and St. Joseph’s at home.
‘Nova has 17 games against teams that finished in last season’s RPI top 70.
Nevada plays at Washington and Oregon and gets San Francisco at home. Ohio’s schedule includes dates at Memphis, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, and home games with Richmond, Portland, Oakland and Winthrop.
No Marshall basketball team has played this end-to-end kind of grinder. There have been four games with big names before, but non-league challenges were softer then.
Look up the great 1971-72 Herd NCAA team of Lee, D’Antoni, Noll, etc. That last nationally-ranked Marshall club – the Herd went as high as No. 8 and finished at 12 (23-4) – also owns the highest-ranked upset in school history, over No. 8 St. John’s in the 1971 Marshall Memorial Invitational title game.
It played the then-Redmen and Mississippi State at home, and faced Wisconsin and Al McGuire-coached Marquette in the Milwaukee Classic and went home-and-home with an Ohio club that reached the NCAA as did the Herd … but the rest of that independent schedule can’t match 2012-13 for degree of difficulty.
"I think we knocked on the door," Herrion said of a team that played the Herd’s way back to hoops relevance, if not into an NCAA bracket the Herd hasn’t reached since 1987. “We can say what we want, but we didn't get the job done enough in the conference schedule.
“No one's told me that, but in my heart of hearts, is why we weren't ... at the end of the day, we might have been on the cusp of the NCAA, but we didn't get it done in the regular season in the conference. “Our non-conference was fine. We had quality."
He does again. This schedule has a lot more wildcats than Kentucky and Villanova.