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East Carolina was a long-time pushover much of Marshall's first seven seasons in Conference USA.
Jeff Lebo's third year as head coach of the Pirates is showing more than promise. ECU is playing like an upper-tier team within the league.
The Pirates will bring an 11-5 record into the Henderson Center Saturday night. Only one of those five losses would qualify as a bad loss. ECU's losses are at Charlotte, a six-point loss at North Carolina, at UMass, an inexplicable 86-81 loss to a Campbell team that lost to NAIA Rio Grande in a regular season game, and a 67-54 loss at Memphis where the Pirates actually went on a 21-0 run over the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
ECU is 2-1 in league play, having won two straight in Greenville, 88-85 in OT against UCF, and an 89-78 victory over Houston.
In fact, 10 of the Pirates 11 wins have come in the friendly confines of Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum.
East Carolina is one of the highest scoring teams in the league. The Pirates average nearly 79 points per game. Senior forward Maurice Kemp has been scoring at a prolific 18.3 points per game pace and 8.4 rebounds. Senior guard Miguel Paul averages 12.5 points per game, and Robert Sampson, son of collegiate great Ralph Sampson, averages nearly 10 points and 9 rebounds per game.
That trio was important in a victory over Marshall last season in Greenville that may have kept Marshall out of the NCAA tournament.
The Thundering Herd will enter the contest at 8-9, 1-1 in C-USA play. The Herd lost its last outing, 74-63 at UTEP. The Herd has never been competitive at the Haskins Center against the Miners, so there was no surprise in that outcome. It was still a great improvement after Marshall bottomed out with a home loss to Delaware State followed by a 37-point beat down at Ohio. In the wild C-USA, Tulsa beat UTEP on Wednesday night. The Herd beat the Golden Hurricane, 79-61.
Defending home court is always key and for Marshall, this is no different. Marshall is 7-1 in the Henderson Center.
Elijah Pittman leads the Herd with a 14.5 points per game average. DeAndre Kane scores at a 14.1 per game clip, while D. D. Scarver adds 14 points per contest. Dennis Tinnon averages 10.9 points and 9 rebounds.
It's an impressive front four scoring wise, but the problem Marshall will face is getting quality scoring from the rest of its lineup. Nigel Spikes is the only other player averaging more than five points per game, and the senior has been wildly inconsistent this season.
Jamir Hanner can provide a spark and contributed eight points on the offensive end. But the sophomore still looks lost at times defensively when forced out to the perimeter. On one particular play that stood out in El Paso, the player Hanner was defending caught the ball on the right wing. Hanner left the man with the ball to jump at the player in the corner, who was guarded by Pittman. Before Pittman could actually push Hanner back toward the man with the ball, a three-pointer for UTEP was going through the net.
These types of defensive lapses are by no means contributed simply to Hanner, but are a microcosm of the team's breakdowns that have kept it from blossoming as the season has progressed.
Dennis Tinnon had a solid outing offensively at UTEP, scoring 19 points on six of seven shooting. In fact, all four of Marshall's double-figure scorers reached that plateau. However Spikes was held scoreless and the Herd was outrebounded 32-23, which is unacceptable for how this Marshall team is physically made up.
Marshall's shooting numbers suggest the Herd is fortunate to be no worse than 8-9 overall. The team is being outshot from the field, the three-point line, and is just 58.8 percent from the foul line. To put that free throw number in perspective, the Herd has scored seven more points from the charity stripe than its opponents in 69 more attempts. That's a staggering rate of inefficiency.
As Marshall tries to salvage the season, ECU is trying to make a name for itself in the league. This is not a typical Pirate squad, and Lebo has done a fantastic job in Greenville. Marshall and ECU have had close games each of the past four meetings over the last two years. The Herd will have to play well to keep up with the fast-breaking Pirates, who look for quick shots in early offense. Sound defense and an overwhelming rebounding margin could lift Marshall to a victory. Anything else could leave the Herd without enough firepower to handle the Pirates.
Ryan Epling is an analyst with Herd Nation. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged on the Old Fairfield forum.