Weekley: Will Cleveland Rock For The Herd?

Saturday's loss at Oxford to Miami confirmed that any dreams of running the table through the rest of the regular season in the MAC to a third place finish and an opening round league tournament bye are finished. Marshall must now set its sights on the next best thing by securing a winnable home game for the opening round of the MAC tourney that will propel the Herd into Cleveland's Gund Arena with some momentum.

Marshall's 69-49 loss at Miami provided a rugged reminder of the defensive brand of basketball the Herd can expect to see once the MAC post season begins. No one will claim that Charlie Coles has the best athletes in the MAC at Miami, but the Chinese water torture style of basketball the RedHawks favor is tailor made for tournament play.

Miami limits an opponent's possessions by running each of their half court sets deep into the shot clock and frustrates foes with its seemingly endless series of screens and hard cuts to the basket for high percentage shots.

Marshall has an excellent chance to measure itself against the MAC's traditionally tournament-tested teams prior to the beginning of this year's post season. After this weekend's opportunity to collect some always-welcome national exposure in the ESPN Bracket Buster with a test against Illinois State, the Herd's final two regular season home dates feature East Division leaders Kent State and Miami, sandwiched around road trips to Ohio and Akron.

Currently at 7-7 in league play and barring a late season collapse, if Marshall splits its final four MAC regular season games the Herd will most likely host an opening round tournament game at the Cam on March 10. Marshall showed its ability to grind out a defensive-minded victory even when the shots were not dropping in the win over Bowling Green.

Can you remember the last time Marshall had a second half field goal percentage in the 20's and a final score in the 50's (58-56 to be exact) that resulted in a Herd win? The difference was defense. Hard-nosed defense is at a premium in the post season and Marshall has showed defensive definite improvement this year.

Heading into the final games of the MAC regular season, the Herd is among the conference leaders in field goal percentage defense (.444), three-point field goal percentage defense (.326) and assist/turnover ratio (1.01). While these are not flashy stats, they do confirm improved defensive play this season for Marshall.

You can also mark off improved production at the point guard position in your Marshall checklist for an improved post season run. While his tendency for foul trouble is disconcerting, A.W. Hamilton is certainly among the keys to Marshall's MAC tourney success. When it comes to distributing the basketball, Hamilton has quickly proven to among the best point guards the MAC has to offer. Hamilton is not only going to finish his first season at Marshall as the MAC's assist leader, he's running away with the honor. Hamilton is averaging 5.72 assists per game and is a good bet to finish the season nearly one assist per game ahead of his closest competitor, EMU's Mike Ross from Beckley.

Strong point guard play is critical in the MAC tournament and if Hamilton gets his minutes, that bodes well for Marshall.

The x-factor in a successful tournament run for Marshall is the probable breakout for Ronald Blackshear. While the Herd's junior sharpshooter suffered through a 4-14 effort en route to a team high 13 points at Miami last Saturday, anyone who has watched Marshall this season realizes that Blackshear is capable of getting red hot very quickly.

In a MAC tourney situation in which you need to win three games in three days, having a weapon like Blackshear is something most conference teams don't possess.

I won't pretend to tell you that Marshall has a lot of positive MAC tourney history at the Gund. In fact, the Herd hasn't won a single game there since the MAC moved its conference tournament to Cleveland and the 84-81 quarterfinal loss to Ball State after earning a first round bye two years ago was about as painful as it gets for Marshall fans.

But this season's young Herd team that features just one senior in Monty Wright has virtually no significant links to Marshall's past MAC tourney failures. The time for Marshall to build a new and positive MAC tournament tradition is now.

How the Herd finishes the final two weeks of the conference regular season will reveal if Marshall is capable of making its long overdue tourney run at the Gund.

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