Marshall basketball: Herd in a slump, Knights on a roll
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- If there's anything that can snap Marshall out of the funk associated with a three-game losing streak - the last loss at home Wednesday to struggling Southern Methodist - it's the Thundering Herd's Saturday afternoon guest.
Marshall (9-12, 2-4 Conference USA) hosts Central Florida and former Herd Coach Donnie Jones, who bolted Huntington for Orlando in 2010. It will be the last time the Knights enter the Cam Henderson Center as a C-USA opponent.
"UCF's a good team," Marshall junior guard DeAndre Kane said. "It's a rivalry and it should be a nice crowd. I don't know if they'll come out after what they've just seen, but it should be a nice crowd."
What the 5,407 fans saw Wednesday at the Henderson Center was a Herd team that shot 33.9 percent from the floor, 25 percent from 3-point range and 43.5 percent from the free throw line in losing 68-57 to an SMU team that had lost six of its previous seven games.
That's on top of allowing the Mustangs to shoot 48.1 percent from the floor and outrebound the Herd 41-35, events that led Marshall Coach Tom Herrion to say his team had lost its identity as a consistent unit in those two categories.
It was another example of Marshall's hot-and-cold nature this season.
The Thundering Herd lost by 11 to SMU after bulldozing previous C-USA opponents East Carolina and Tulsa at home by an average margin of 19.5 points. And after getting trounced by 56 at Southern Mississippi, the Herd rebounded to lose by one at Memphis, only to fizzle again Wednesday.
"It is a shocker," Herd senior forward Dennis Tinnon said of the SMU loss.
"We had that great intensity at Memphis. Not to take anything away from SMU, but we'd beaten them every time we've seen them, so it is a shocker. They were pretty good and they did what they had to do."
What the Mustangs did, and what could become a trend against the Herd, was confound it with zone defense. SMU clogged the lanes and kept Marshall's athletic players out of their comfort zone of driving to the hoop. The Herd settled for 3-point shots, which might not have been a good idea for a team ranked ninth in C-USA shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc.
Of Marshall's 59 attempts from the floor against SMU, 25 were behind the 3-point line. The Herd made seven of those.
"If you're not hitting shots, that makes a really big difference in a zone," Tinnon said. "The zone is made for you to force a team to take a lot of 3s. If we're not hitting 3s, it's going to be a long night."
Kane said Wednesday night he wasn't sure how much zone the Knights would play. What the Herd does know is the Knights (15-5, 5-1) enter Saturday's game just one game behind conference-leading Southern Miss and Memphis. That doesn't matter much for UCF, banned from the postseason as punishment for NCAA recruiting violations, but it shows the type of talent the Herd will face.
UCF is led by preseason C-USA player of the year Keith Clanton. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward has backed that up by sitting fifth in the conference in scoring (16.2 points per game), third in rebounding (9.4 per game) and second in field goal percentage (.597). Point guard Isaiah Sykes sits right behind Clanton in the C-USA scoring rankings at sixth with 15.9 points per game and also averages 4.4 assists per game.
The Knights come to Huntington on a four-game winning streak, though they feasted on a menu of teams in the bottom half of the conference standings - Houston, Rice, SMU and Tulane.
The Herd finds itself in the bottom half of those standings as well, tied with Tulane for seventh. Kane hopes the team will play above that, that Marshall will emerge from its doldrums for one last shot at home against a long-time rival. The team has been able to do it in the past. Marshall hasn't lost at home to UCF since falling 78-71 on Jan. 16, 2007.
"It's always a big game," Kane said. "It's always a close game and it's always a hard-fought game."
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.