Oct. 13, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - In the NFL, a 9-7 record will get you at least a wild card, maybe a division championship. In the NBA, that .563 winning percentage can land you about a No. 6 conference seed in the playoffs. In baseball, the 2012 NL wild card Cardinals weren't even quite that good (.543).
In Conference USA men's basketball last season, 9-7 didn't get Marshall where the Thundering Herd wanted to go, despite other glittery numbers.
"It can't happen again," third-year Herd Coach Tom Herrion said of the 9-7 regular-season finish - a fifth-place tie in the 12-team conference. "At 9-7 it didn't get it done, that's what cost us the NCAA Tournament, that's the story, that's the fact, that's the truth.
"I know that. It wasn't anything else. I'm not happy about it, and we've got to do a better job in conference play, period."
Among preseason crystal-balling, the Herd is ranked among the top three in the league, with Memphis and UCF. Most observers put the Herd - with a significant size and talent hike from last season's 21-14 team - just behind the defending champion Tigers, who are headed out the C-USA door to the Big East.
And while it seems Marshall's first NIT berth since 1988 (a first-round loss at Middle Tennessee State) perhaps hasn't been appreciated as much as it should be - hey, noted coaches like Billy Donovan and Dana Altman couldn't get the Herd over that hump - the 2012-13 Herd wants something better.
That would be the school's first NCAA Tournament berth since 1987.
Marshall had the No. 16 overall RPI strength of schedule last winter and ranked fourth in non-conference SOS. With an RPI of 43, Marshall had the highest ranking in that power gauge to not make the 68-team NCAA field ... and several at-larges with lower RPIs did make it.
"It was 9-7," Herrion said, and five of those seven losses came in a three-week stretch in which the Herd dropped six of seven games.
MU was 3-5 in C-USA road games. So was Southern Miss, which made the NCAA as a No. 9 seed, but the Golden Eagles went 11-5 in the league thanks an 8-0 record at Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg.
The two-game difference was huge for the Herd, although Marshall won two of three from southern Miss, including a C-USA Tournament semifinal triumph.
This season, again, the Herd has the kind of non-conference schedule to open NCAA selection committee eyes. Two days ago, ESPN.com hoops writer Eamonn Brennan picked the 10 toughest non-league schedules from teams in the top 12 conferences.
The Herd was 10th on that list, trailing Texas, Duke, UCLA, Memphis, Florida, Kansas, Temple, Butler and North Carolina. Brennan called the Herd schedule "brutally tough ... also smart."
He called the Herd's Dec. 22 date at defending NCAA champ Kentucky "the perfect embodiment of a no-risk/all-reward scheduling trick. Loss? Who cares? Marshall's RPI won't take a hit. If anything it will improve."
The Herd plays at Villanova the first weekend of the season, and gets Cincinnati at the Charleston Civic Center, and the expectations are for Coach Mick Cronin to have perhaps the Bearcats' best team since 2001-02, when that Bob Huggins-coached club went 31-4, won a C-USA title and had a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
Marshall and West Virginia are also playing in Charleston again, and the Mountaineers are picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Big 12 ... to which WVU Coach Huggins said: "If we're the sixth-best team in the league, it's a hell of a league."
Going back to C-USA, the Herd schedule appears what Herrion called "more manageable" with a pair of two-game road trips (Southern Miss/Memphis; Tulane/UAB) that won't have Marshall flying home between games.
Another factor that could help is that the Herd learned by reaching the 2012 C-USA Tournament championship game before falling to Memphis that it really was better than a fifth-place club.
"We've got to take care of business in the conference more than we did last year, plain and simple," Herrion said before Thundering Herd Madness on Friday. "No doubt, I think we always felt confident, but we just didn't produce on certain nights and we've got nobody to blame but ourselves in that regard.
"I think, obviously, the way we played three out of four days to get to the tournament championship game in Memphis was a testament to our kids, our staff, our stick-to-itiveness, our ability to find our groove, albeit late in the season, but you've still got to find it."
Herrion has averaged 20.5 wins per season in his six years as a head coach at College of Charleston and Marshall, and he likes the challenge of the Herd's schedule and the respect the program is receiving among the top 50 in America these days.
Star guard DeAndre Kane also got some good pub this week when College Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com named the junior wing player as the C-USA preseason MVP.
"Being picked high means you have a chance," said Herrion, who will turn age 45 during the first week of this season. "Being picked low, we're all optimistic as coaches, but it usually doesn't translate very well. I'm happy people recognize and respect our program ... And I wouldn't think having beaten some of the people we'd beaten than we're going to sneak up on anybody."
He said the Herd needs "to play the best we can play. That's what they (the Marshall athletic administration) want, that's what we sell in recruiting, but let's don't kid ourselves. We played in the ninth-toughest league in the country last year ... Memphis, Southern Miss, UCF were very good ... The league has been good and will be good again, there's just a lot of change."
UCF is under NCAA sanctions, cutting the C-USA tournament men's field to 11 teams (five byes and first-round games of 6-11, 7-10, 8-9). UAB, Tulsa, SMU and Southern Miss have undergone coaching changes. Memphis, Houston, SMU and UCF are leaving the league after this season, to be replaced by Charlotte, Old Dominion, FIU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas and UT-San Antonio.
"Everyone wants to talk about the four so-called BCS teams we play (Kentucky, WVU, Cincinnati, Villanova)," Herrion said. "Nevada is coming here and I don't think anyone has any idea how good they are, with one of the best backcourts in the country. South Dakota State has one of the best perimeter players in the country (senior guard Nate Wolters, 21 ppg. last season). Ohio's got everybody back, and Jimmy (Christian, who moved from TCU, formerly at Kent State) is a really good coach."
It still will come back to C-USA performance, Herrion believes, and Marshall's three road games against West Division teams (Houston, Tulane and UTEP) are the best three of the six, too. So, who could sneak up on the teams picked at the top?
"There are a lot of good teams," Herrion said of the 2012-13 C-USA race. "I think East Carolina has a good chance to have a good year, great experience on the perimeter. I think UTEP will be vastly improved, and I think Tulane is sneaky good, got lot of pieces back and that's a team I think that can be among many. I think there's great depth and quality in the entire conference. It's better than people think."
The Herd, he believes, need to take care of what it sees in the mirror.
"Lots of our guys have made unbelievable strides, and there's obviously great deal of opportunity out there, and we've got some talented newcomers, lots of people who can fill different roles," Herrion said. We've got depth and we've got quality.
"There's going to be a lot of good competition every day and that's going to make us a quality team at some point."
While no one among the Herd faithful should nitpick about the program finally returning to the NIT, the Marshall goal in Herrion's third season is going one postseason step higher...and that means taking care of the regular season in its own conference.