Success last March generates new confidence around MU basketball
HUNTINGTON — Marshall University’s conference championship and NCAA Tournament victory last season created a different vibe around the Thundering Herd men’s basketball program.
Players are feeling a difference when they walk into Cam Henderson Center. “I think we’re just a lot more confident and a lot more experienced in comparison to last year at this time,” sophomore guard Jarrod West said.
Head coach Dan D’Antoni said he feels it when he’s out on the recruiting trail. “When I walk around we’re much more recognizable,” he said.
Marshall had a breakout 2017-18 season in D’Antoni’s fourth year at his alma mater.
The Conference USA championship was the program’s first league title in 31 years and its upset of Wichita State University in the NCAA Tournament first round was another first-time event. The Thundering Herd was winless in its previous five NCAA Tournament appearances.
D’Antoni’s wide-open style of play highlighted by 3-point shots and pick-and-rolls combined with his colorful personality and standout performances by individuals and the team generated a lot of national attention around tournament time and in the months since. Local interest is also running high. Offseason workouts have drawn crowds of 50 or 60 spectators.
Marshall’s conference championship and NCAA victory were vindication that the system works, D’Antoni said.
Looking ahead, Marshall returns most of the players from a 25-11 season and is likely to be forecast as the C-USA favorite for 2018-19. Senior guard Jon Elmore is the top candidate for C-USA Player of the Year and senior guard C.J. Burks is a solid all-conference candidate.
“I think it’s (attention) well deserved,” Elmore said. “We’ve won games at the highest level and I think its only going to improve as we move forward.”
There is an increased feeling of excitement at Herd workouts and practices. Every day, the players are thinking about winning a national championship, Elmore said.
The Herd leader made a comparison to last season when Loyola Chicago got into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 33 years and rode the Missouri Valley Conference championship all the way to the Final Four.
“Everybody is like, that’s not possible, a mid-major, that’s not possible at Marshall,” Elmore said. “But I think Loyola kind of set the bar last year where nobody thought Loyola could do it and they ran through teams. I think that’s kind of where we see ourselves.
“Our goal isn’t just to be satisfied and win Conference USA, it’s to win the whole country. That’s what we work for every day.”
Marshall has completed the first two of its 10 allotted practices leading up to an Aug. 10-17 trip to Nassau, Bahamas, where team bonding will be the emphasis while the Herd also plays three exhibition games against teams from the area.
Practice continues at 10 a.m. Monday, subject to change.
“Seeing how we did last year all the fans are expecting us to be even better this year, so we have to prove that to ourselves and just get better as we go,” sophomore forward Darius George said.
George said the way last season ended, with a loss to West Virginia University in the NCAA second round, made the players want to work harder, win the conference again and get past the second round.
Getting deeper into the NCAA Tournament is a motivator. The Herd had a great run last season, but wasn’t ready for it to end.
“We want to take another step,” West said. “We have to work hard to get better every day. We’re a lot more excited about the season.
“We all know as a group we have a chance to be a lot better than last year and we have a chance to make a deep run.”