SCOUTING THE THUNDERING HERD
Marshall's extreme balance and ability to score well from all five positions makes this a tougher match-up than initially anticipated. All starters average between 8.7 and 11.5 points per game, and second-year head coach Donnie Jones will soon begin to benefit from more team experience after a pair of players were limited early because of injuries. Led by its three-forward combo of Tyler Wilkerson, Tirrell Baines and Markel Humphrey, MU is expected to top its 8-8 mark last season in Conference USA. Wilkerson, 6-8, 240 pounds, will be among the thicker interior players faced by West Virginia in out-of-conference action. The junior hits for a team-best 11.5 points per game with 6.8 rebounds. Good on the offensive glass, Wilkerson takes high percentage shots and can clean-up under the bucket. Baines, a 6-6, 220-pound sophomore, has flashed some athleticism. The All-C-USA freshman isn't a threat from the outside – he has yet to take a three-pointer – but is great in the paint and Marshall's best rebounder on both ends. He occasionally plays too quickly, though, and can turn the ball over as a result.
Humphrey, 6-6, 230 pounds, scores 10 points and grabs about five rebounds per outing. A complete player, the swingman has major experience and can score from anywhere on the floor. He missed the Capital Classic last year because of a foot injury, and now his other foot is bothering him because of an inflammtion. He is probable to play, however, and should give the Herd the boost it needs inside after the team lost 300-pound post player Marcus Goode to knee surgery in early January. Goode, at 6-10, is nicknamed Big Boi and was a rock inside despite lacking a refined game. He gave MU decent minutes off the bench in the first 11 games, a role that's now being filled by several players as Jones searches for the best rotation.
The guard depth is significantly better, with starters Damier Pitts and Chris Lutz able to handle well and score off the dribble. Pitts has made just 19 of 62 threes (30.6 percent), however, and has yet to find the jump shooting touch. He gets to the line well and converts 82.9 percent from there, making him Marshall's weapon of choice when holding late leads. At 5-10 and 165 pounds, Pitts won't bull his way into the lane and will be a better match for West Virginia's Truck Bryant than what he faced against Connecticut and Marquette. But the Mountaineer freshman must be wary of Pitts' quick hands and ability to steal. Lutz, 6-3, 190 pounds, has played in just 11 games this year with seven starts after sitting out last season following a transfer from Purdue. The junior scores nine points per game and is solid from the outside: he was Big Ten All-Freshman in 2005-06 and set the Boilermaker school three-point record for rookies.
The key backups are Shaquille Johnson and Daryl Merthie. Johnson, 6-3, 195 pounds, is a true freshman out of Robert E. Lee High in Jacksonville – Florida, not North Carolina. The guard was a two-time Class 5A Player of the Year and has started 12 games this season while battling an ankle injury. He is shooting 51 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from behind the arc, both team highs. He is suspect at the foul line, however, and is still adjusting to the speed of the college game. Merthie lit up WVU late in last year's contest when he scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 12-plus minutes to rally the Herd from down a dozen to tie in the final 60 seconds. The smooth, steady guard led Marshall in assists last year and again has a great ratio of 27 assists against 15 turnovers. The 6-0, 190-pounder will take care of the ball, but is another MU player that can't find his shot.
The main forward reserves are Octavius Spann, 6-7, 225 pounds, and Dago Pena, 6-6, 220 pounds. Spann originally signed with and played for Georgetown before transferring last year. He has played in 14 games this season, averaging 12.3 minutes and 2.6 points. Inserted for his size and strength, Spann isn't a major scorer, but rebounds decently, especially on the defensive end. Pena, a swing player, is the better shooter and is showing improvement through his freshman season. The Florida native holds Charlotte High's (Punta Gorda, Fla.) record for points in a game with 42. He originally signed with Florida Atlantic before the Owls granted a release after a coaching change.
Marshall has considerably more talent than most Mountaineer fans realize. Jones is a solid recruiter who will get more skill to Huntington than the school has traditionally managed. The coaching staff has a nice mix of youth and experience, and other than lacking a go-to player, the roster appears dotted with hard workers and players who have the talent and ability to play at the major level demanded. This isn't an easy end to the non-conference slate, and as badly as West Virginia needs this, it will have to work to get a victory on the neutral floor, especially against the balanced scoring of the Thundering Herd.
|Wed. Jan. 14
8 p.m. EST
Charleston Civic Center
West Virginia 26-10
Capital Classic Network
WVU - 20
Marshall - 139
MU's injuries should help the Mountaineers some, as Jones lacks the punch off the bench he had earlier in the year. West Virginia is fighting its own injuries and foul trouble far too often, and any early hack jobs by Bryant, Da'Sean Butler or Alex Ruoff could again force head coach Bob Huggins to shuffle the line-up. Those circumstances make players such as John Flowers man slots that are very unfamiliar, and seem to contribute to everything from lack of offensive flow to rebounding woes. If there the whistles are tight early because of player emotion, West Virginia must be very careful or risk taking a third straight loss and a third beating in five years from an improving Marshall program.
Make no mistake: West Virginia is better and should win if it plays its game. WVU simply needs to rebound well, get Ruoff a few shots – and makes – and convert in key periods. It has suffered through a miss here and there (Ruoff's late transition three and Cam Thoroughman's resulting clank on the front end of a one-and-one late against UConn are prime examples) or a lack of effort in rebounding and other areas that have led to the recent losses. The Mountaineers simply quit at Marquette, leaving the fan base and Huggins seething toward the end. It won't be able to do that or relax in this game. The intrastate tilts are traditionally tighter than expected, so it will once again be a matter of staying with what one does and doing it more effectively than the other team. For West Virginia, that's tough, physical defensive pressure, brutal rebounding, a disruption of opposing offenses and making key shots and converting around the rim. For Marshall, that goal will be to take better advantage of turnovers, shooting a higher percentage than averaged and not allow a myriad of second chances.
Marshall: Marcus Goode, out (torn left knee meniscus). Shaquille Johnson, probable (ankle). Markel Humphrey, probable (inflammation on foot stress fracture).
WVU is 52-19 all-time at the Civic Center and 60-21 all-time in Charleston. Nine of the last 10 Capital Classics have been decided by six points or less, with two overtimes.
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WVU is 32-0 when it outshoots a foe and 34-2 when leading by 10 points or more under Huggins. The Mountaineers are forcing 18.3 turnovers per game.
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West Virginia is 13-4 against Marshall since the game moved annually to Charleston and 15-4 in series games played in the capital. WVU has won nine of the last 12, but have been able only to split the last four match-ups.
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Huggins is 2-0 against Marshall; 1-0 at WVU and 1-0 at Cincinnati. The Herd have lost all three neutral site games this year.