MCGILL: Meet Marshall's Big Four 2.0
The Word on the Herd
By Chuck McGill
CINCINNATI – After Marshall’s run to the Conference USA championship game in March, junior guard Jon Elmore watched the key pieces around him graduate from the men’s basketball program.
Gone was Ryan Taylor, a double-figure scorer and all-defensive team member. Gone was Stevie Browning, the Herd’s second-leading scorer and Elmore’s favorite lob target. Gone was Austin Loop, the school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers.
Now, as Marshall prepares to face No. 10 Xavier (9-1) on Tuesday night (6:30 p.m., FS1, Cintas Center), Elmore finds himself part of a new Big Three, which looks similar to the old trio. He has a new Taylor and new Browning, and a true freshman is doing his best to emulate Loop as the complementary piece to the puzzle.
The Thundering Herd, at 8-3, is off to its best 11-game start in four seasons under coach Dan D’Antoni. Did Elmore think the new cast of characters around him could re-establish the program so quickly?
“I didn’t,” Elmore said. “It’s been an interest process because Ryan, Stevie and Loop – we were good friends. We had two years under our belt to get it all going. Just to see how this young group has meshed, it’s exciting.”
Last season, Elmore teamed with Taylor and Browning to combined for an average of 50.2 points, 16.8 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game. Penava has stepped into Taylor’s role and Burks has blossomed as a starter in Browning’s spot. Those two and Elmore are averaging 62.9 points, 18.0 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
In addition, the Big Three get a boost from true freshman guard Jarrod West, who is averaging 11.3 points per game and shooting 46.4 percent from beyond the 3-pont line. Loop’s numbers last season: 10.9 points per game and 44.1 percent on 3s.
“I think we can continue to evolve more towards the way it was (last year),” D’Antoni said. “Jon with Stevie and Ryan … Ryan could be a point guard, at times. If I can get Penava to that point so Jon can get off the ball a little bit more, or get Jarrod on the point more, I think Jon’s shooting will improve.”
Marshall carries a four-game winning streak into Tuesday’s non-conference matchup with Xavier, which has defeated Wisconsin and top 25 teams Baylor and Cincinnati this season. The Musketeers, coached by Chris Mack, have advanced to the NCAA tournament seven times in the past eight seasons, reaching the Elite 8 in March.
Xavier will face the highest-scoring trio in the country in Burks, Elmore and Penava. That threesome scored 84 of the Herd’s 99 points against Ohio on Saturday.
Marshall has won six of seven overall and ranks No. 10 nationally in scoring (90.2), but D’Antoni sees room for growth.
“Our efficiency on offense has been good; we’re efficient,” he said. “We’re getting to the rim and getting fouled better than we were a year ago. Our 3-point shooting is down a little bit, and our defense is better than it was a year ago.
“That has helped us.”
Elmore is shooting 26.5 percent from 3-point range through 11 games after connecting on 35.2 percent in 2016-17. That is a number that shows the transition from the makeup of last year’s key players to this year’s starters. If Penava can continue to assume some of Taylor’s role as a passer, Elmore should benefit from more looks as a jump shooter rather than trying to hit from long range off the dribble.
“Ajdin is a great passer and a fundamentally sound player,” Elmore said. “He has gotten better each game, as most people can tell. The sky is the limit for him and he helps my game out a lot.”
Elmore has twice been named the C-USA Player of the Week. Penava received his first weekly conference honor Monday morning before the team departed for Cincinnati. Elmore is coming off his first career triple-double, the third player in Herd history to accomplish the feat. Penava missed a triple-double in the same game by one blocked shot (33 points, 15 rebounds, nine blocks). Burks had 31 points in that game, cementing the legitimacy of this year’s version of the Big Three.
Elmore might not have believed this was possible a couple months ago, but he knows he and his teammates have something special.
“It’s been a really cool process because we’ve bounced back quickly as a team,” Elmore said. “It doesn’t matter who you have returning or who you have coming in, it takes a while to mold that team chemistry.”