March 15, 2012

Herd gives fans a taste of the future

Marshall basketball just concluded the 2011-2012 season with one of the most memorable weeks in program history.

Some of those memories are going to last for the right reasons. DeAndre Kane and Shaquille Johnson putting the team on their shoulders in a triple-OT victory over Tulsa in the C-USA Quarterfinals.

Then Marshall showed no ill-effects from that game in dispatching Southern Miss by 11, a Golden Eagle squad that made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large and received a No. 9 seed.

That's when things turned for the worse. Much worse. First was the C-USA Championship game, held in Memphis at FedEx Forum. The Tigers are playing as well as any team in the country, and playing a home game in the conference tournament, plus having not been challenged the previous day, Memphis was too fresh for Marshall to deal with.

Most Herd fans agreed, however, that Marshall had given all it had to give, and the deck stacked against it by C-USA had just caught up to it.

The squad bussed 10 hours home after the game, arriving home late Saturday night. Selection Sunday was suddenly a distinct possibility for Marshall, as the Herd held an RPI of 44, a top 25 strength of schedule and a top 10 non-conference strength of schedule. Those were the three criteria all of the talking heads and committee had been touting for a year, and Marshall stacked up better than most teams on the bubble.

But then the brackets were released and there was no Herd. Iona, who Marshall beat by 19 points, did make the field and the committee received praise from ESPN for their diligence in getting the Gaels into the tournament. Nevermind Marshall's superior RPI, SOS, and non-conference SOS, plus the head to head game. Those were totally irrelevant.

Marshall fans were justifiably upset, and the fact the so-called experts breaking down the field refused to even mention the Herd as being a team left out. The NCAA released the last six out, but Marshall's name was not among them.

This infuriated the fan base even further, but Herd fans knew a 2-hour wait for the NIT Selection show would bring better news. Surly the Herd, who had the highest RPI of any team in the country to be left out of the NCAA Tournament, would receive a home game in the NIT. In fact, Marshall should have been receiving a No. 1 or No. 2 seed at worst.

When the NIT Selection Show aired, Marshall was given a No. 5 seed and sent to Middle Tenneessee State for the opening round. Two days later on The worldwide leader didn't deem the Herd worthy of their airwaves.

The Herd was back on the bus Monday morning for a nearly seven-hour trip to Murfreesboro, just outside of Nashville. Marshall would play its fifth game in seven days Tuesday night against a Blue Raider team that hadn't played in nine days, and knew it would be an NIT squad the entire time.

The NCAA and NIT had completely stacked the deck and Marshall didn't have enough in the tank to overcome a predictably sluggish start. Marshall's season ended 21-14.

The final analysis for the squad is not yet complete. Marshall may not have reached the very high expectations of the fan base during the season, but when the conference tournament started, the Herd got to the title game against Memphis, where many thought it would when the season began. Marshall was on the NCAA bubble for an at-large bid, where many had hoped the team would be when the season began. And then for the first time in 24 years, Marshall made one of the big two postseason tournaments.

The last week, Marshall pride was on full display and rightfully so. The team played against heavy odds and while it came up short, it didn't go down without a fight. Kane became the player Marshall fans had hoped he was over the past week. The senior trio of Damier Pitts, Johnson and Dago Pena would have liked their season to last longer, but were integral in elevating the program. Don't forget, Nigel Spikes came in with them but sat out as a freshman.

Current Marshall students were either too young or not yet born to appreciate the Southern Conference runs through Ashville in the 1980's. Most don't remember Marshall's previous NIT bid. The Herd was the talk of the town for a solid week and it didn't play within six hours of home in two different locations in Tennessee.

There is nothing to be ashamed of with the Herd's final week of play. Instead, there is a lot to be proud of. Marshall is a school built on blue-collar work-ethic. It is engrained within the fabric of the students and residents of the region. Coach Tom Herrion and company took their lunch box to work every day last week and against all odds, made a lot of people smile. It's a run that should not be forgotten, and should the program accelerate next season to reaching new levels of success, will be remembered as the groundwork. The Herd gave it all it had, and although it would have been nice to see the squad suit up again somewhere along the way, their legacy should be remembered as a positive moment in the program's storied history.

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

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