SCOUTING THE THUNDERING HERD
Marshall's season has been one of streaks, as the Herd opened with six consecutive losses, followed by three straight wins. Included in the defeat string was a pair of decisive setbacks to James Madison, which West Virginia downed by 13 points. As we’ve seen time and again in this series, however, such items don’t carry much weight when the Herd plays its most important game of the season.
MU’s starting lineup changed a bit when transfer Jon Elmore (So., 6-3, 190 lbs.) became eligible last week. He could start again in head coach Dan D’Antoni’s three-guard set, or he could cede the position back to freshman C.J. Burks (6-4, 205 lbs.). Burks has been very good in his first season on the floor, averaging nearly 11 points per game and earning Conference USA freshman of the week honors twice. Elmore is expected to provide more outside shooting prowess, but whoever gets the start, the other is expected to earn similar minutes off the bench. Play setter Stevie Browning (Jr., 6-3, 175 lbs.) and 3-point sniper Austin Loop (Jr., 6-4, 200 lbs.) round out the backcourt. Loop leads the league with 29 threes to date, and WVU simply cannot allow him to shoot the ball in rhythm. He hit eight threes in the team’s win over Eastern Kentucky.
Up front, junior Ryan Taylor (6-5, 225 lbs.) and senior James Kelly (6-8, 260 lbs.) provide almost all of the Herd’s interior punch. Each averages 16 points per game. Kelly is nearly a double-double performer, with 9.8 rebounds per outing, while Taylor chips in 6.8. However, they get next to no help off the bench, as four backups average just 5.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game – combined.
In addition to the Elmore\Burks pairing, Justin Edmonds (Sr., 6-4, 225 lbs.) provides minimal depth support at guard. He adds 3.4 points per game in about 12 minutes of action per contest. The lack of productivity down the bench, however, works against D’Antoni’s plan of playing up-tempo. That requires more minutes from backups, and when they aren’t scoring or rebounding, puts the brakes on the efficiency needed to keep pressure on opponents. Still, the Herd is averaging nearly 78 points per contest, and its highest outputs have come in its last four games.
As usual much of the pregame attention has been focused on the blather from Huntington about WVU “being scared”, about the tenuous status of the series moving forward, and about West Virginia players not being as focused on the game as their Herd counterparts. Putting that aside, though, it all still comes down to the action on the floor. There, the West Virginia press will play out against Marshall’s ability to produce open shots – especially of the 3-point variety.
Every WVU game, of course, begins with the effects of the press, but in this one the tell might be in the second half. Marshall is going ten players deep in its lineup, but can it stand up to Mountaineer pressure the entire game? For West Virginia, the question is one of consistency. In its lone loss, the press became less of a factor in the second half, and execution waned. That’s also been the story in a couple of the team’s blowout wins – intensity has wavered after the half, allowing opponents to execute better. The Mountaineers must, no matter how the first half goes, stick to its pressure and play with the waves of intensity that can wear down the short Herd bench.
|WVU (8-1) vs. Marshall (3-6)||Date: Thu Dec 17|
|Venue: Charleston Civic Center||Location: Charleston, WV|
|TV: ESPNU||Time: 7:00 PM|
|RPI: WVU - 51 MU - 248||Series: WVU 32-11|
Marshall, for its part, figures to follow a blueprint that some other fast-paced teams have followed against West Virginia. Move the ball upcourt quickly, spread the floor and take the first shot available, even if it’s from distance. The Herd has shown no shyness in launching from long range, as they have already attempted nearly 100 more threes than their foes. MU has made just 29% of those tries, however, and will probably have to have a success rate closer to 40% to have a chance of springing the upset.
West Virginia will also look to exploit its rebounding edge against the undersized Marshall lineup. While Herd guard Stevie Browning helps on the glass with 5.7 boards per outing, MU as a whole has struggled to rebund the ball, showing an average deficit of 6.4 per contest. If they can hold that deficit down, they’ll have a much better chance of staying the game, but that’s a tall order against WVU’s +12.6 rebounding margin to date. If the Mountaineers crash the glass and score effectively, that also slows down transition opportunities for the Herd, and removes some of their best chances to score.
It’s cliché, but remember that at the core of every one of those is a truth. And the truth is, here, that you really can throw the records out the window. Marshall plays every one of these games as if the future of its program depended on it, and however you want to analyze that, the fact is that the Herd puts forth better than its average performance when it faces the State’s flagship institution of higher learning. The betting line may be large, and D’Antoni’s comments may have raised a simmer among some WVU fans, but it would be a mistake to expect anything less than the Herd’s best effort this year.
The 70-point mark continues to be a winning level for the Mountaineers. WVU was 21-0 last year when holding opponents under that scoring level, and has extended that streak with a 7-0 mark so far this season.
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WVU and Marshall each have 49 players in their respective 1,000-point scoring clubs. The Herd is poised to make that 50 with Ryan Taylor, who is seven points away from that total. Devin Williams is closest for WVU to joining that group, as he has 823 points in his two-plus seasons. At his current average of 17 points per game, Williams would need eight more games to break into the group.
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WVU forward Jonathan Holton has become the sort of all-around performer that head coach Bob Huggins imagined when recruiting the passionate player. He’s averaging 9.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, and is in the top dozen nationally in offensive boards with 4.2 per outing. He has 11 more offensive than defensive boards this year, one of two Mountaineers (Nathan Adrian is the other) in that category. He’s passing the ball well, spearheading the press, and committing fewer fouls. While others get more time in the spotlight, Holton has become a keystone from which many different West Virginia successes emanate.
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Marshall hasn’t had much success away from home over the past four seasons. The Herd is 4-39 in true road contests and 2-7 at neutral sites over that timeframe. It last won a game in that category back in 2011, when it defeated WVU at the Charleston Civic Center.