Capital Classic: Herd expects physical matchup
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The Marshall men's basketball team doesn't mind winning ugly.
Good thing, because the ugly might not yet be over for the Thundering Herd.
After grinding out three-point wins over Morehead State and UNC-Wilmington, the Herd (5-3) has its sights on in-state rival West Virginia and the annual Capital Classic at the Charleston Civic Center.
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (WPBY telecast).
In playing a pair of intense, physical games before lining up against the Mountaineers (2-3), the Herd has plenty of experience in tough games going into Wednesday.
But Marshall Coach Tom Herrion said the Capital Classic takes tough and physical to a different level.
"I don't know if anything can prepare you for that," Herrion said. "It's a great rivalry with the level of physicality of two highly competitive teams in a rivalry game."
In Herrion's first Capital Classic as Marshall's coach two seasons ago, the Thundering Herd and Mountaineers combined for 64 fouls and 70 free throws. Only one Marshall player, DeAndre Kane, fouled out, yet four other Herd players had four fouls when the game ended. The whistles didn't tweet nearly as much in last season's game, but the teams still were called for 32 fouls, including 20 for Marshall.
Senior center Nigel Spikes expects the Herd and the Mountaineers to crash into each other again. WVU senior Deniz Kilicli, who missed last year's game with an ankle injury, should be ready for Wednesday. Kilicli, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound bruiser from Turkey nicknamed "The Istan-Bull," was called for three fouls against Marshall two seasons ago. He averages 3.6 fouls this year, the most on the team, and has fouled out of one game.
West Virginia is averaging 21.6 fouls per game this season, the most in the Big 12 and 26th-most in Division I.
"That's how they play," Spikes said. "They're a very tough team. It's nothing new to us. They know how we play. We know how they play. When we go in to play them, we're going to go in there with a strong mentality, very prepared for the situation. We're going to play hard, crash the boards, do what we do."
A physical style isn't just old hat when it comes to WVU. The Herd is used to it in practice as well. When Marshall hits the court between games, there's no such thing as a whistle or a foul. The players learn to fight through the elbows, the bumps and the chopping arms.
"That's how we like to play," Spikes said. "We practice that every day. We're big boys. We can take an elbow or a hard foul. We're built for stuff like that."
They've gotten plenty of experience with it in the past two games. Morehead committed 32 fouls in Marshall's 70-67 win. In the Herd's 61-58 win over UNCW, the Seahawks were called for 30 fouls. Those hack parties have disrupted the game's flow and kept putting the Herd on the free throw line, where Marshall has shot a Conference USA-worst 60.9 percent. That percentage also ranks 323rd out of 347 Division I teams.
Yet those games forced the Herd to weather the rough play, junior forward Elijah Pittman said, and made the players realize they can succeed in such an environment.
"It actually gets us ready and makes get to the point where we play better and grind longer and perform better," he said. "It's going to get us ready, all these games where we're not playing so good. When we play the good teams, we're going to play better.
"The teams we're playing are really coming to play," Pittman added. "They ain't slouches. They're coming."
While Herrion isn't sure what Marshall faced against Morehead and UNCW will match what they should expect Wednesday, he hopes it helps at least a little bit.
"We've been in, obviously, a lot of close games in a short year," Herrion said. "Hopefully, we've gained experience by going through the experiences. It takes years off my life."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.