As Marshall (7-6, 15-11) sat on the sidelines with an open date on Wednesday, Feb. 27, the Herd made a jump in the Conference USA standings from seventh to a tie for fifth with UTEP. The Miners lost for the first time in El Paso, Texas, when UAB came away with a 88-81 win. Also last night, Marshall's next two opponents fell further behind the Herd when Memphis knocked off the Golden Hurricane, 82-67, in the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. Central Florida won over Tulane, 80-63, in Orlando, and Houston kept pace with the Blazers with a win over the Herd's final opponent in the regular season as the Cougars beat Southern Miss, 95-67, behind 52 points by Robert McKiver. In the battle for tenth place, East Carolina knocked off SMU, 82-54.
The standings headed into this weekend are this:
Memphis is in first, 13-0, 27-1, and clinched first round bye;
Houston (21-6 overall) and UAB (20-8 overall) are tied for second at 10-3;
and this is where it gets interesting.
UCF is now in fourth, 8-5, 15-12, and has Rice (0-13, 3-23) at home, then travels to Houston and Tulsa;
Marshall (7-6/15-11) has games left at Tulsa, at Tulane and home to Southern Miss;
7-6 is the Conference USA record for UTEP (16-10 overall), Southern Miss (15-12 overall) as well as the Herd, all tied. UTEP will travel to SMU (2-11, 8-18), play Tuesday, March 4, at Southern Miss and host Houston for the final game.
Meanwhile, USM will host Memphis, host UTEP and play at Marshall.
Tulsa (6-7, 15-11) has MU this weekend, then are at UAB and host UCF. Tulane (5-8, 15-12) will play at UAB, host the Herd then host East Carolina. If Marshall could sweep wins at Tulsa, Tulane and over Southern Miss, the Herd would finish 18-11, 10-6 in league play. UCF, who is one game ahead, figures to beat Rice, but winning at Houston will not happen and Tulsa may need the win and the Knights are a different team on the road where they average about 20 points less per game than in the New UCF Arena. It looks like the Knights might also finish 9-7, 10-6 with a good game at Tulsa. Southern Miss has a tough challenge with Memphis and UTEP at home and at Marshall, and Southern will most likely finish 7-9.
Tulsa has a tough road as well, hosting the Herd (who beat the Hurricane in overtime back in January), then at UAB and UCF at home to finish. It would look from a Marshall perspective that TU will lose at least two and probably three to finish 6-10. Tulane has lost six in a row and that might not change with games at UAB, against Marshall (who beat the Wave in Fogelman Arena last year, and earlier this year as well). Tulane might even finish in a 6-10 tie with Tulsa and East Carolina, who will not beat Houston this Saturday, but can win at Rice and against Tulane in the finale, hopefully enough for Coach Mac McCarthy to take interim off his head coaching title with the Pirates with a 11-18 finish for a team that was 6-14, 1-15 in league play last year.
Memphis will run the table to finish 16-0, and I projecting Houston to finish second with wins at ECU, over UCF and finding a way to win at UTEP to go 13-3 in league play. UAB will win two of three to finish third, falling only in the final game at Memphis after wins over Tulane and Tulsa, at 12-4. If Marshall and UCF are both 10-6, and split the season series, the Herd would get the tiebreaker thanks to a win over UAB in Huntington. If the Knights lose to Houston, they would be 0-4 versus the top three, with two losses to Cougars. That would give the Herd the fourth place finish, and a first-round bye. Some Marshall fans would prefer to see the Herd fifth so they would not be in Memphis' bracket and would already have a win over No. 12 Rice in the tourney going into the second game.
The easy part is writing and talking about winning those final three games. Now comes the hard work for a Marshall team that is 2-4 on the road in league games, just 2-8 away from the Henderson Center on the year. The Herd will play at Tulsa, 4-2 in league games in the Reynolds Center, and in New Orleans, where Tulane is just 2-4 at home and who has lost six in a row headed into this weekend's games.
The Herd has developed a very strong inside game with the emergence of sophomore forward Tyler Wilkerson, who has averaged 16 points and eight rebounds per game in the last eight contests. Marshall is 5-5 in its last ten games, and has won four of its last five games by beating ECU, Tulane and UCF at home and winning at SMU. The loss was a three-point defeat by UTEP, 79-76, in which the Herd made only 19-of-32 free throws in the Henderson Center. Tulsa is 6-4 in its last ten coming into Saturday, losing to Memphis, beating Presbyterian and beating Rice in the Golden Hurricane's last three games.
If this was a horse race, the call would be, "and down the stretch they come!" Marshall has its fate in its own hands, and Coach Donnie Jones' team has already got a non-losing record out of the 2007-08 season. Now the first year head coach is looking for that elusive winning season, and the almost unbelievable first round bye for Herd fans who have seen too much sub-par basketball in the last eight years, and the Herd can do it with some T-and-T, wins over Tulsa and Tulane, and finish with an explosive win on Senior night over Southern Miss on March 8. Seniors Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, Jean Francois Bro Grebe, Mark Dorris and Taurean Marshall can leave a legacy of basketball in the next ten days that Herd fans will remember as the turnaround year in Marshall basketball.