Marshall basketball: Tinnon, Herd eager to face challenge posed by UK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The Marshall men's basketball team's Wednesday night win over Savannah State was still fresh, but senior forward Dennis Tinnon could barely contain his excitement for the next game.
When that game is at Rupp Arena against the storied Kentucky Wildcats, that enthusiasm is tough to restrain.
"It's going to be a great feeling just go to Rupp Arena and play in that type of environment," Tinnon said as he bounced up and down in anticipation. "That's one of the toughest places to play in."
The Thundering Herd (7-5) will know that feeling firsthand Saturday at 4 p.m. The ESPN2-broadcast contest is the highest-profile game left on Marshall's schedule. Perform well versus the Wildcats, and that's momentum the Herd can take with it through an extended winter break. After Saturday, Marshall doesn't play again until it hosts Delaware State on Jan. 2.
Beyond the Big Blue atmosphere, Marshall's players know what awaits them - a Wildcats team stacked with blue-chippers trying to gain some momentum of their own. Tinnon said the Herd understands what it will take to succeed in Lexington.
"We have to prepare like we've never prepared before," he said. "When we come into practice, we know we have to be focused. You've got to have your eyes and ears open and be focused the whole practice."
It doesn't dampen the Herd's spirit that the Wildcats (7-3) have struggled this year, at least by UK standards. The defending NCAA champions, Kentucky began the season ranked third, despite losing its top six scorers from 2011-12. Coach John Calipari signed a standout freshman class, led by 6-foot-10 center Nerlens Noel, 6-foot-4 guard Archie Goodwin and 6-foot-7 forward Alex Poythress.
Yet back-to-back losses to unranked foes Notre Dame and Baylor sent Kentucky tumbling from No. 8 in the country to out of the Associated Press Top 25 altogether. It was the most precipitous one-week fall in poll history and snapped a streak of 61 straight weeks in the AP Top 25. The Wildcats responded with wins over Samford, Portland and Lipscomb by an average margin of 32.7 points.
That's the Kentucky team Marshall expects to see, and the Herd knows its energy level must jump from its last few games.
Marshall is 2-2 in its last four, pairing losses to West Virginia and No. 11 Cincinnati, both in Charleston, with grind-it-out wins over Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponents Coppin State and Savannah State.
"I think we need to amp it up some more," sophomore guard Chris Martin said. "This is a dream come true. You get a chance to play against a team you watched as a kid. We're going there to win. We're not going there for the experience, so we definitely have to turn it up."
The Herd won't be surprised if the Wildcats employ a pressure, trapping defense that has worked well for Marshall's opponents this month. Marshall is averaging 17 turnovers in its last four games. After committing 20 against the Bearcats, it had 19 against Savannah State, 15 of them Tigers steals.
Marshall will still be without junior DeAndre Kane, whose 8.5 assists per game before he broke his right hand remains the second-best average in Division I. The point guard duties will fall to freshman Tamron Manning, who made his inaugural start Wednesday and played 16 minutes against the Tigers, and Martin, who played 25 minutes Wednesday.
"They're going to be in us," Martin said of Kentucky. "Can't get a cut. They're going to be pressuring to make sure we fumble that ball. We have to stay focused to make sure we hold onto the ball and make the easy passes and limit the turnovers. That's a game-killer."
The Herd is no stranger to high-profile environments. The team played at then-No. 3 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome last season and at Freedom Hall versus Louisville in 2010. Marshall Coach Tom Herrion called Rupp Arena one of the most historic buildings in college basketball, but said his team won't shy away from the challenge.
"Let's go get 'em," Herrion said. "Let's go. We know it's been on our schedule and we have great respect for the defending national champions in their house on national TV. We've got to play well. We've got to play strong. When you play on the road, you've got to do everything better."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.