Written by Justin Prince.
The Marshall men’s basketball team wrapped up its regular season on Saturday with its first win over a ranked opponent since the Herd defeated West Virginia in 2011 and Marshall’s first win on the road versus a ranked team since downing Dayton in 2000.
It was a nice way to cap the fourth regular season under head coach Dan D’Antoni and gives the Thundering Herd some momentum to carry into the Conference USA tournament in Frisco, Texas.
But, more importantly it marked the continuation of a trend with D’Antoni at the helm and that trend is improvement. The win was the Herd’s 21st of the year, the most since Marshall went 21-14 in the 2011-2012 season under then coach Tom Herrion.
In D’Antoni’s first season, a rebuilding year after the program made a steep decline during Herrion’s final two seasons, the Herd went just 11-21 and barely qualified for the CUSA tourney with a 7-11 league record. Then the next season in 2015-2016 Marshall made a leap forward.
The much talked about D’Antoni offense was starting to take shape and the Herd finished that year with a 17-16 overall record, going 12-6 in league play and advancing to the conference tourney semifinals before getting ousted by Middle Tennessee.
Last year marked another step toward D’Antoni’s ultimate goal of making Marshall one of the premier teams in Conference USA as the Herd went 20-15 and met up with the Blue Raiders once again, this time in the conference tournament title game. Again, Middle Tennessee would prevail, but the game proved to be a turning pointing for a program looking to return to prominence.
“I keep telling the kids, just keep playing and keep getting after it,” D’Antoni said in a radio interview before the final weekend of the regular season. “We were one game away from the big dance last year but we didn’t quite get there. We want to be a team that’s in that conversation year in and year out. I tell the kids, you keep knocking on that door and eventually it’ll open for you.”
The strong finish in last season’s CUSA tournament gave D’Antoni’s group confidence and despite losing three starters to graduation and being picked seventh in the league by conference media members in the preseason, the Herd has once again improved. The Herd enters this year’s tournament 21-10 and has Conference USA’s top offense for the third consecutive season.
Despite the improved record Marshall will have to win the conference tournament in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987 and will most likely have to once again square off with perennial CUSA power Middle Tennessee in order to claim the crown.
But, this year is different. Unlike last season where the Blue Raiders had swept the Herd in the regular season, this year Marshall has a pair of wins against Middle, the only two losses for Kermit Davis’ team in conference play.
“Marshall has proven they’re better than us twice,” Davis said. “We’re better than every other team in the league, but not Marshall. They’ve beaten us there; they’ve beaten us here. We can’t do much with their guards. Give them a lot of credit.”
To win the conference, the Herd will most likely have to prove itself better than the Blue Raiders a third time. But before the Blue Raiders and Marshall can mix it up again, both teams must get through quarterfinal matchups on Thursday, March 8. Marshall will play the winner of the fifth seeded UTSA Roadrunners and the twelfth seeded UTEP Miners. If the Herd wins that there is a good chance the Blue Raiders will be waiting.
“It’s a game of runs,” said starting Marshall point guard Jon Elmore. “I think our two best defensive games of the year have been against Middle and hopefully we can keep that up going forward in the tournament. We kind of just run guys at you non-stop.”
For fans wanting to make the trip to Frisco to watch the Herd in the conference tournament in person, tickets can be purchased HERE.