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Capital Classic: Herd has edge if recent trends continue

By Jack Bogaczyk

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Perhaps, if the Capital Classic is again played to recent form, it should only be chronicled in 140 characters via Twitter.

Tweet ... tweet ... tweet ... tweet.

With the 40th West Virginia-Marshall men's basketball game tonight, the series has morphed into a sold-out atmosphere in the 12,360 Charleston Civic Center seats and a foul atmosphere on the floor.

Hopefully, this quality non-conference date between legitimate NCAA hopefuls (WVU 13-5, Marshall 13-4) can prevent hacking.

The march between foul lines last year? The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade doesn't stop that often. There were series records of 64 fouls and 70 free throws.

It wasn't an aberration. It's become a trend. Things changed when Coach Bob Huggins brought his man-to-man toughness in his sideline return to his alma mater. Nothing wrong with that style ... it has produced 704 career wins.

But when Huggins succeeded John Beilein on the WVU bench, gritty ball pressure and an attack-the-basket mentality replaced a confounding, amoebic 1-3-1 defense and back-door cutters.

As the Mountaineers got tough, so did the Thundering Herd. No one backs down, especially in this rivalry. In the last four Capital Classics, there have been 210 fouls (52, 54, 40, 64, in 2008-11) and 245 free throws (61, 68, 46, 70).

After its win Saturday night at home over UCF, the Herd was talking about a 40-foul game being physical. Well, that was just a primer.

The toughest job tonight might belong to the three officials. They have to take control early, establish what is and isn't a foul, and then whistle consistently and hope the 10 other guys on the floor adapt.

There's hope. I won't name names, but I promise it's a first-rate crew of striped shirts that has been assigned to Charleston.

Two of the three officials have worked multiple NCAA Final Fours. The other will get there soon, maybe this season. He has worked the last two Elite Eights and is respected in more than one major conference. He also has worked multiple WVU and Marshall games this season, so he's familiar with the coaches and their players.

The bad thing is if it becomes a free throw-shooting contest, it's a tossup between teams that rank last at the stripe in their respective conferences. Both are in the bottom 50 nationally (among 344 major teams) in foul-line percentage.

Meanwhile, it's a very competitive matchup, whether you're talking RPI (WVU 14, Marshall 33), strength of schedule (WVU 3, Marshall 33), and, in a number the NCAA selection committee really appreciates, non-conference SOS (WVU 24, Marshall 26).

Marshall has more depth (crucial if it's a foul-fest) and experience than does West Virginia. Led by point guard Damier Pitts, the Herd is more ready to play a Big East team than it has been in past years - which it already proved at Cincinnati (overtime win) and Syracuse (a six-point loss to a team that's now 20-0 and top-ranked).

"This group has a sense of ... poise, confidence," Marshall Coach Tom Herrion said after MU's win over Central Florida. "There's not a panic button. We had it last year a lot. We'd splinter; we could panic.

"There's not a sense of panic, and we've had it pretty much all year, and we've been in a lot of different environments, home and away, and I think that's a testament to growing, becoming more mature, and having some leadership from some older guys."

The Mountaineers have an edge in veteran talent and guidance in their two seniors, forward Kevin Jones and guard Truck Bryant. Huggins needs good games from both tonight, as well as postman Deniz Kilicli to fortify a group of freshmen that is improving but still trying to find consistency.

The Herd should - and will - expect WVU to go away some from its man-to-man with a matchup zone, because Marshall handled that like a just-microwaved potato when UCF's Donnie Jones went matchup Saturday night.

Marshall's Pitts, Pena and scoring leader DeAndre Kane need to make shots ... ditto Bryant and Jones for WVU. Dribble penetration will only go so far before denial.

If Marshall has been listening, it will try to get into the Mountaineers' passing lanes because when that happens, Huggins' players begin dribbling ... and dribbling ... sending the coach's blood pressure soaring.

"I used to have an assistant say, 'They killed ants,'" Huggins wryly said after the Mountaineers' loss last week at Connecticut. "There wouldn't be a damn ant alive if they had any in there ... we would have killed them all. We just dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and we don't pass the ball."

The Herd has to value possessions more than it has in some crucial stretches, and Herrion says that such an offense, leading to opponent breakouts, feeds defense.

"Our field goal percentage (.435) defense is a lot higher than I really want overall," the Herd coach said. "I don't like the number, 43 is not a good number, but we're giving up too many easy points off our turnovers that are really uncontested layups. If you look at our halfcourt defense, I think we're pretty good."

The Capital Classic's breaking point figures to be on the glass, where both teams are strong. Marshall has yet to be outrebounded in 17 games. West Virginia has lost the boards only twice in 18 games (wins over Oral Roberts, Villanova).

If the rivalry game is plagued by mediocre marksmanship (as usual) and free throw attempts by teams with struggling foul shooters, a big board game in the emotion, passion and noise could mean the difference.

"The atmosphere, the heatedness, we've tried to put ourselves in situations where there's a competitive atmosphere, put the kids in different environments," Herrion said when asked how the Herd's schedule to date could aid in the Capital Classic cauldron. "Like they say, you only gain experience by going through the experience.

"You have to live off the intensity. We're not a great fluid offense team. The way we are is not by accident; we recruited guys that battle. That's what we needed."

It's what Huggins appreciates in a team, too.

"We know what it takes to win this game and how crazy it is," Marshall senior Dago Pena said. "We know how tough they are and how they play."

That goes both ways.

Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at jackb@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949.


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