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From great challenge comes great opportunity.
It's a cliché that transcends sports. In everyday life, the greater the challenge overcome, the greater the sense of satisfaction.
When it comes to Marshall basketball, the Herd has a great challenge ahead of it Saturday.
Marshall (7-5) will visit reigning national champion Kentucky (7-3) for a 4 p.m. contest at Rupp Arena. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
There is no greater blue blood in college basketball than the Wildcats. Not Duke. Not North Carolina. Kentucky is the gold standard for college hoops. With the recruiting prowess of fourth-year head coach John Calipari, the lure of Rupp Arena, and a fanbase that is basketball crazy, it's one of the easiest jobs in the country.
It's also one of the most difficult places to play. Kentucky's 64-55 loss Dec. 1 to Baylor was Calipari's first home loss as Wildcat coach.
Regardless of the big names that have gone through recently, such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, one home loss in three-plus seasons is absurd.
There is a new class of talented freshmen in Lexington this fall. Nerlens Noel was the No. 2 ranked recruit of 2012 behind UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad.
Even with some early-season "struggles," the Wildcats are talented beyond belief. Archie Goodwin is the physical guard Calipari has specialized in recruiting, in the same mold of Tyreke Evans when he was at Memphis. The 6-foot-4 guard, last year's Arkansas Mr. Basketball, is scoring just under 16 points per game and shooting an impressive 49.5 percent from the floor, including nearly 47 percent from three-point range. His strength, however, is finishing at the rim.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Noel is just the team's fourth-leading scorer. Alex Poythress, a 6-foot-7 forward who was last year's Tennessee Mr. Basketball, scores 15 points per game.
The biggest surprise might be a sophomore. Kyle Wiltjer averaged five points per game for the national championship squad a year ago. Now, his role has increased. The 6-foot-10 forward is scoring nearly 12 points per game and attempts the bulk of UK's 3-point attempts, making just under 42 percent. He is the one guy who is difficult for even a forward-heavy Marshall team to match up with.
Then, there is Noel, another 6-foot-10 forward who is scoring 10.7 points per game and grabbing nine rebounds per game.
The one place Marshall can compete is on the glass. Wiltjer is a perimeter player for the most part, and despite astounding size, UK is less than plus-four rebounding per game. If Marshall can limit the Wildcats to one shot and create additional offensive opportunities, it can't hurt.
Marshall played a sloppy, sluggish floor game in a comfortable win over Savannah State. Expect that to be the norm this season, but don't be disappointed in the win. Savannah State had held its own this year with Central Florida (three-point loss) and Middle Tennessee State (three-point loss), two teams that are considered superior to the Herd. Marshall won by 16.
D.D. Scarver and Elijah Pittman continue to lead the Herd in the absence of DeAndre Kane. The duo is shooting the ball well and scoring well. Their turnovers are limited.
Where Marshall must improve, surprisingly, is inside. Dennis Tinnon has the numbers (10.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game), but he is not had the monstrous game the 6-foot-7 forward is capable of. Nigel Spikes is scoring seven points per game and pulling down nearly nine rebounds, but poor free throw shooting has punctuated his season. Teams are simply fouling him around the basket.
The Herd has to be better in the paint for the season. UK is a tough team to gauge that improvement against, because the Wildcats are spectacular and will be a force come March, but there is no excuse for not competing. Marshall did compete against No. 11 Cincinnati. The Bearcats were simply better. UK may not be as good of a basketball team currently as UC is, but the Wildcats are much, much more talented. They are waiting on a breakout game.
For Marshall to be successful, Scarver and Pittman must both take turns carrying the offense through hot stretches. UK will force tempo, so that can create open looks for the Herd in transition. Taking care of the ball is also a major factor, and Marshall must be creative to improve there.
Both teams are a work in progress, and as Christmas break comes, each is in need of showing strong signs of improvement. Unfortunately for the Herd, the Wildcats seemed to make a substantial jump following the loss to Baylor. The last three wins were impressive: 88-56 over Samford, 74-46 versus Portland and 88-50 against Lipscomb. While none of those three teams will be competing for a national championship, Kentucky has been superior by a wide margin.
Marshall, on the other hand, has been winning the games it should and hasn't knocked off any of the larger programs on the schedule thus far, losing to Villanova, West Virginia and Cincinnati. There is no bigger fish in the NCAA pond than UK. It's a challenge that certainly presents a program-changing opportunity.
Ryan Epling is an analyst with Herd Nation. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged on the Old Fairfield forum.