MCGILL: D'Antoni Leans on Trio as Practice Begins
The Word on the Herd -- Oct. 3, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Dan D’Antoni, three seasons and 100 games through his head coaching career at Marshall, sat behind a table Monday afternoon in the Henderson Center flanked by three players: Jon Elmore, Ajdin Penava and C.J. Burks.
Those are the only three players on D’Antoni’s fourth Marshall team who started a game last season. It is a fact not lost on D’Antoni, who turned 70 years old on July 9.
“We’re going to ride with these three,” he said Monday. “They’ve got to step up.”
If the Marshall men’s basketball team stands any chance at equaling or bettering last season’s 20-win campaign that ended in the Conference USA championship game – one step from the NCAA tournament – then Elmore and Penava and Burks will be three reasons why. They represent much of the proven production D’Antoni has on his 2017 roster, a group that had its first official practice Monday after the media asked questions in the Hartley Room near the Henderson Center floor.
“I’m happy where we got (last season),” D’Antoni said of his 20-15 team. “We want to get better.”
Monday’s season-first practice was about what returns and what is new, but let’s take a moment to review what this program lost since the final game of the 2016-17 season.
Fifth-year seniors Stevie Browning, Austin Loop and Ryan Taylor graduated. Terrence Thompson, who would have been a key senior, opted to transfer. Aleksa Nikolic left the program and signed a professional contract. Those five combined for 125 of 175 starts last season (71.4 percent), 1,665 of 2,997 points (55.5 percent), 212 of 356 three-pointers (59.6 percent), 3,957 of 7,075 minutes played (55.9 percent) and 694 of 1,294 rebounds (53.6 percent).
That is massive production that D’Antoni has to replace as he tries to continue the Herd’s upward trend in wins. Marshall has won 11, 17 and 20 games in D’Antoni’s first three seasons on the bench.
“This year we lost five players – all contributors. All have been big contributors,” D’Antoni said. “The big question for this year’s team is not so much talent and not so much experience, but it’s more about how they’ll play together and the chemistry they develop. This year’s team, with a bunch of new players, will have to develop that chemistry. I think we’ll be OK talent-wise; I don’t see a big drop off there. But there is a big drop off in the chemistry we’ve developed.”
Marshall returns sophomore Christian Thieneman (6-5, 205), sophomore Phil Bledsoe (6-6, 229) and senior Milan Mijovic (6-9, 252). Redshirt freshman Jannson Williams (6-9, 217) is ready to go after sitting out last season. Junior guard Rondale Watson (6-4, 185) will eventually join the mix after he transferred from Wake Forest.
The departures of Taylor and Thompson leave the Herd thin on bodies for the interior.
“We’re probably challenged in that area in that we lost Ryan … Terrence, who was one of our stronger rebounders," D'Antoni said. "Obviously, we’ll have to manufacture some stats there, but I think Ajdin will lead that charge.”
Penava could be the key that unlocks Marshall’s potential this season. He averaged 1.9 points and 1.0 rebounds as a freshman, and then upped his contributions to 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds as a sophomore last season. He had seven double-figure scoring games last season, but in a display of his improvement throughout the season, six of those came in Conference USA play. He had his breakout game with 20 points and eight rebounds at FIU, and had a pair of 10-rebound games late in the season.
Elmore and Burks should develop into a dynamic backcourt combination, and D’Antoni will build the rest of the lineup around those three players.
“Our depth chart is filling up,” D’Antoni said. “This will be the first year that everybody on the team will be someone we recruited. Our depth is untested. I like our athleticism. I like our activity … it’s a much quicker, faster team. That will allow us to do more things.”