Herd basketball embarks on new journey
HUNTINGTON — Marshall’s Thundering Herd was one of the big surprises last season in college basketball.
But, as preseason practice began Wednesday in Cam Henderson Center, head coach Dan D’Antoni cautioned that last year is no guarantee for this year.
“Every year is a new year, so you don’t rely on what you did last year other than we enjoyed it,” D’Antoni said.
Marshall completed its climb to the top of Conference USA by capturing the 2018 championship and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987 and only the sixth time ever. Marshall had zero NCAA victories (0-5) before the 13th-seeded Herd upset fourth-seeded Wichita State, 81-75, in the East Region at San Diego. Fifth-seeded West Virginia sent Marshall home with a 94-71 spanking in the second round.
“I think pretty much it was quite unexpected the run we had,” 6-foot-4 senior guard Rondale Watson from Lewisburg, West Virginia, said before practice Wednesday. “It’s exciting for us to say we’re champions. To be able to repeat that would be special. It won’t be easy.
We’re just ready to begin.”
Marshall will have 30 practices before the Nov. 7 season opener at Eastern Kentucky to mold its 16-player roster (seven returnees, nine newcomers) into a unit that’s expected to be challenged by Western Kentucky for the 2019 C-USA crown.
Watson, a key reserve player last season who contributed 7.8 points and 3.6 rebounds a game, said preseason practice is a time for everyone to get in game shape and for the younger players to learn how quick and fast they need to play.
“We’ll get to where we want to be,” he said.
Any discussion about the Herd begins with point guard Jon Elmore, the 2018 C-USA tournament Most Valuable Player who put up 22.7 points and 6.8 assists per game (both league highs) along with 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals. The 6-3 senior from Charleston set Marshall records with 816 points and 244 assists.
Elmore put himself in the NBA Draft pool following his junior season, but pulled out in time to protect his eligibility.
“Jon is one of the best players in the country,” D’Antoni said. “Having him back, obviously is a good thing. He’s a great leader, a great representative of the university and is going to be a great alumni.”
D’Antoni said having Elmore as the floor general stabilizes things and provides the NCAA Division I rookies on the team a chance to be tutored and learn from him.
Redshirt freshman Iran Bennett is a much-anticipated new arrival. The 6-10, 345-pound redshirt freshman from Raleigh, North Carolina, made a stop at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, before joining the Herd last year as a partial academic qualifier who could practice, but not play in games.
Bennett has dropped pounds from a starting weight of about 280, and D’Antoni thinks he’ll lose more.
“That’s going to be a process of him getting used to five days of practicing,” the head coach said. “Last year he kind of pulled himself in and out whenever he wanted to. This year he’s going to be thrust in there and expected to maintain it.”
Another new player is 6-8 sophomore forward Mikel Beyers, a transfer from Mesa Community College in Arizona, with three years of eligibility. D’Antoni said he’s one of the most skilled players on the squad and an outstanding shooter with range who needs to improve defensively.
D’Antoni said returning players led by 6-4 senior guard C.J. Burks (20.1 points per game), Watson, 6-9 sophomore Jannson Williams, starting guard Jarrod West (5-11 sophomore) and 6-7 sophomore forward Darius George have all gotten better.
Junior college transfer Ante Sustic (6-10 junior) has been a surprise because of how much better he’s become in a short period of time, D’Antoni said.
The roster also includes freshmen Taevion Kinsey (6-5 guard), Jeremy Dillon (6-5 guard) and Cam Brooks-Harris (6-6 forward) seeking playing time.
D’Antoni said everyone he has can play, but he can’t play please everybody to the extent they want to be pleased.
“They have to buy into the team concept and understand we’re playing for Marshall,” he said.