Marshall basketball: Herd looks to strengthen defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Dive into the numbers, and there's plenty for the Marshall men's basketball team to feel good about entering the 2012-13 season.
There's the 21 wins from last year, which included a trip to the Conference USA title game and the Thundering Herd's first berth in the National Invitation Tournament since 1988. There's the 70.6 points per game the Herd averaged last year, fourth best in C-USA. And there are the 39.7 rebounds per game and plus-seven rebounding margin, both tops in the conference.
Yet there are some cringe-worthy figures in that mix, namely the 68.1 points Marshall allowed per game last season, second-worst in C-USA, and the 45 percent the Herd allowed opponents to shoot, dead last in the conference.
The old adage is "defense wins championships" and the Herd wants to insert itself into the mix for the conference title.
The players know that, in order to do that, they must vastly improve their defensive performance.
Marshall's defensive woes stunned senior forward Robert Goff - to a point.
"It did at first," he said. "Then I realized how bad we were playing."
The Herd's defensive numbers weren't just some of the worst in Conference USA.
They were among some of the worst in Division I. Out of 338 teams D-I teams, Marshall was ranked 204th in points allowed, 256th in field goal percentage allowed, 207th in steals per game and 305th in personal fouls per game.
Goff and senior forward Dennis Tinnon said that had a lot to do with players still growing into Coach Tom Herrion's system in just their second year in it. Herrion, they said, was focused on so many things, that defense might not have gotten the focus it needed.
"The team chemistry wasn't right," Goff said. "I think that's going to be a lot better this year, especially with the key returners from last year."
The Herd has a mixture of key veterans and newcomers expected to make an immediate impact.
Three of last year's five starters return - Goff, Tinnon (preseason all-C-USA second team pick) and junior guard DeAndre Kane (preseason all-C-USA first teamer).
Marshall also brought in junior college transfers D.D. Scarver from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas and Elijah Pittman from Lamar State College-Port Arthur in Texas.
The Herd also brought in freshman point guard Kareem Canty, a Harlem, N.Y., native who was rated the 25th best point guard of the Class of 2012 by Rivals.com.
When some of these players make their 2012-13 debut remains to be seen.
Five Marshall players were held out of the team's lone preseason game, a win over Bluefield College. Goff and redshirt freshman DeVince Boykins were out with injuries, while Kane - Marshall's leading scorer last year at 16.5 points per game - and projected starting center Nigel Spikes were held out by coach's decision.
Canty remained on the bench as Marshall continues working with the NCAA concerning an initial eligibility issue.
Goff should be fine for Marshall's regular season opener Friday against Longwood, Herrion said. Boykins' return might still be a couple weeks out, while Herrion said it'll be up to him when Kane and Spikes play again. Canty will be sidelined until his eligibility is determined.
Regardless when each player will enter for the first time, all of them have been indoctrinated into the ways of effective defense.
The Herd has been drilling defense since the summer and Kane said that part of Marshall's game, especially help defense, should be much, much better.
"Last year, guys would get beat and there was a wide open lane," Kane said. "This year, we're helping, taking charges, sliding our feet. We know which way to play our defender. No middle, play everyone to the baseline.
"It's a mental thing. You just have to remember your assignments. If you're in the middle of the court, you have help-side. If a guy sets a pick and roll and a guy rolls, you have to help that guy until he recovers. You have to pay attention to the game. There's going to be fatigue, but you have to know your assignments at all times."
Marshall defense needs to improve, especially in the face of a daunting schedule. On top of the usually tough C-USA slate, the Herd plays a beast of a non-conference schedule. Marshall visits Villanova and defending national champion Kentucky in the season's first 45 days and Ohio after the New Year. It hosts Nevada and plays both West Virginia and Cincinnati in Charleston.
Twelve of Marshall's foes this season qualified for the postseason, including eight in the NCAA Tournament.
That's a tournament the Herd hasn't been a part of since 1987. It wants to end that drought, and the players know they must buckle down on defense to do so.
It's succeeding at little things that have allowed Marshall to become one of the nation's best rebounding teams, Tinnon said. That same dedication should make the Herd better defenders.
"I think that playing defense is going to help us win a lot of games, just manning up," Tinnon said. "There should be no excuses for us to not be a top defensive team. That's just the way it is."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.