March 6, 2012

Herd hits Memphis, opens tourney with SMU

One down, four to go.

Marshall's 79-75 victory over Southern Miss was one step forward as the Herd heads to the Conference USA Tournament in Memphis, starting today.

And in March, focus goes no further than the day at hand. No. 6 Marshall will play No. 11 SMU in the 3:30 EST contest at FedEx Forum. The winner will play Tulsa tomorrow at the same time, but the Golden Hurricane should be a long way from anyone's mind.

Focus is key when it comes to March Madness. Looking at tomorrow gets you beat today.

The Herd and Mustangs faced off in Dallas on Feb. 18. Marshall came away with a 73-68 victory in front of 2,110 family, friends, band members and cheerleaders at Moody Coliseum. The Herd had a 20-point lead in the second half and staved off a furious rally from the Ponies.

The atmosphere won't be much different this afternoon at FedEx Forum. The cavernous 18,000 seat NBA arena will likely hear the echo of the ball bouncing on the hardwood for the afternoon tip between two schools that don't carry much interest in the greater-Memphis area.

The Herd (18-12, 9-7) is coming off an emotional win over a Southern Miss team that went 24-7 in the regular season. All three seniors, Damier Pitts, Shaquille Johnson and Dago Pena reached double figures. Pitts kept the Herd in the game early scoring all 13 of his points among Marshall's initial 29 tallies in the contest.

DeAndre Kane played a very controlled and calculating game, with 17 points and 5 assists. His defense was very strong in helping the Herd get the victory.

Marshall wasn't the only team in C-USA to receive a big day from seniors in picking up a home win over a team with a better league record Saturday.

SMU (13-18, 4-12) got 14 points from senior Robert Nyakundi and 11 more from fellow senior Rodney Clinkscales as the Mustangs knocked off UTEP, 57-48. Nyakundi hit four 3's in the victory, while Clinkscales added three more.

In the first meeting in Dallas, Pitts had 20 points, including hitting five 3's in the second half. Kane added 14 points and eight rebounds, but where the Herd went to work was in the paint. Nigel Spikes had 13 points and Dennis Tinnon added 12.

Nyakundi, a 6-8 wing/forward who can get his shot off over just about anyone, was only 2-of-9 from three point range, well under his 42 percent average for the season. London Giles hurt the Herd off the bench though, scoring a team high 17 points. Jalen Jones had 15, despite a 2-of-7 performance from the free throw line. Jeremiah Samarrippas and Nyakundi had 10 apiece.

Giles did not score in the win over UTEP in just 13 minutes of play.

Marshall can not fall into the trap of simply bombing away against SMU. The Mustangs shoot more three's than anyone in the league, including making 10-of-30 against UTEP. Marshall was just 3-of-18 against Southern Miss, but most of those were clean looks.

Marshall has made a concerted effort to play inside-out the past two games. Tinnon is coming off a 22-point, nine rebound performance against Southern Miss. Spikes had nine rebounds in just 19 minutes before fouling out as well. This style will benefit the Herd because despite its struggles from three-point range this season, the looks it got Saturday were much improved from some of the shots fired up throughout the season. Of the 18 three's taken, less than three were truly forced. Marshall, like any team in America, shoots best when its feet are set.

SMU is methodical so each possession counts. The Mustangs are content to hold the basketball deep into the shot clock before either slipping free on a backdoor cut or popping out beyond the arc for a jumper. Marshall must limit turnovers and get shots on the offensive end.

The Herd can really focus on the defensive end, and once again take the challenge of holding this team under 50. SMU was well under 20 at the half of the first meeting, and didn't crack 30 earlier this season in a home loss to UAB.

SMU's free throw percentage is misleading. The Mustangs make a solid 67 percent from the line, but have multiple guys over 80 percent. Clinkscales makes 94 percent on the season, Samarrippas is at 85 percent, Giles at 81 and Nyakundi is at 80. The problem is, SMU's guards do not drive to score often outside of Jones. The Mustangs have shot over 100 fewer free throws than Marshall-in one more game.

Both teams will enter this afternoon's contest with some momentum, after winning senior day games in the regular season finales. This is the time of year everyone associated with Marshall has been looking forward to, and SMU's slow-pace makes for a tricky first round opponent.

The Mustangs are one of C-USA's teams that has a poor record but generally competes well.
Anyone familiar with the league this year knows most games have been played to tight contests, even among teams that have struggled to win. And while Herd fans seemed disgusted with the ugly February win over the Mustangs, the same fans would more than welcome one in March, because there is no such thing as an ugly win in March.

The thoughtlessness of Conference USA will mean SMU and Marshall fans travelling to Memphis will be unable to watch their men's and women's teams both play on opening day Wednesday.

No. 7 Marshall will play No. 10 SMU in the first round of the women's tournament at 2:30 EST in the Elma Roane Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Memphis. An arena that has the ambiance of a 1950's high school gym in the Midwest, it is unique in that fans enter the arena at ground level and go up a floor to the second level to reach the floor.

SMU has lost 6-of-7 entering the tournament, including a 61-57 loss at Tulsa last time out. The Mustangs beat the Herd, 55-53 in Huntington in the lone regular season meeting.

Marshall beat UCF last time out, 69-60, spoiling senior day for the Knights in Orlando. Marshall went an even 3-3 against C-USA West schools, while splitting with each East team sans East Carolina. The Pirates swept the Herd in two games decided by a combined 5 points, and won by one in overtime on a late 3 in Huntington, and are the No. 11 seed.

ECU also has the same problem Marshall and SMU do. The women play at Noon, while the men tip at 1, making attending both impossible.

The Elma Roane Fieldhouse is 20 minutes from FedEx Forum, meaning fans can not easily navigate from the beginning of one game to the other.

After winning the league last year and being ranked in the Top 25, Houston finished 3-25 this season and finished last in the league.

Ryan Epling is an analyst with Herd Nation. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged on the Old Fairfield forum.

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