Herd traveling with heavy hearts
Losing five out of six games with another difficult road game ahead is a fair amount of adversity, but that can be rendered insignificant in a minute.
The Marshall program is mourning the death of DeAndre Kane's father, Calvin, who passed away Tuesday morning in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The elder Kane had some health problems, but had talked to DeAndre as recently as Sunday - and reportedly was planning to attend Marshall's home game Saturday.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday, but Kane did not make the trip with the team for tonight's game at Central Florida. Obviously, his status is doubtful.
"Our thoughts and our prayers are with DeAndre and his family during this difficult and trying time," said MU coach Tom Herrion. "He will have the support of our program, as well as the entire Marshall family."
With or without Kane, the Thundering Herd will carry a heavy heart into a hostile environment at UCF Arena in Orlando, where the teams battle at 7 tonight.
"The situation with DeAndre, it's a tough one," said point guard Damier Pitts. "But we're going to go out there, give it our all, play for one of our brothers. Do it for him."
When the emotions give way to basketball, tonight's game features two teams who know each other all too well. For Herd seniors Shaquille Johnson, Pitts and Dago Pena, this will be their eighth game against the Knights - four under Herd-turned-UCF coach Donnie Jones, four against Jones.
Marshall leads the short but eventful all-time series 8-5, taking five of seven involving Pitts, Johnson and Pena. That includes a triple-overtime MU win in 2010 and a split last year, emotional in both arenas. This season, UCF looks to negate Marshall's 65-64 win on Jan. 14.
Of the four crowds topping 9,000 in the new UCF arena, Marshall has accounted for two. Herd players acknowledge that student body gets jacked up for their arrival.
"Every time we go up there, it's a good crowd," Pitts said. "I'm expecting a sellout, and I'll be ready to play."
If Kane doesn't play, Marshall also faces the practical matter of replacing his team-high 16.2 points per game, along with 5.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists 1.4 steals. Pitts may play close to all 40 minutes, with Johnson and Pena expected to provide more minutes - and more offense.
Marshall (14-9, 5-4 Conference USA) is trying to shake its 1-5 funk that dates back to the 78-62 loss to West Virginia. The four losses since have been by a combined 27 points, with Tulsa pulling away in the final minute for a 79-70 decision last weekend.
"We're right there," Herrion said. "It's not because our kids have laid down. They've obviously competed at a high level [but] you've got to make winning plays down the stretch, in any game. That's what we've got to do on both ends of the floor."
UCF (17-6, 6-3) is 4-2 since the first Marshall game and has a two-game winning streak, including its first-ever road win against Southern Methodist. The Knights are 12-1 at home, losing only to C-USA leader Southern Mississippi.
Kane's possible absence could hamper the Herd's effort to keep A.J. Rompza, Isaiah Sykes and Marcus Jordan in check. But it is Marshall's struggling inside game that will be tested again. Keith Clanton, the all-conference candidate who struggled in Huntington with five traveling violations, will look for redemption.
Tristan Spurlock had 12 points and five rebounds off the bench at MU, and is averaging 9.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in five league games since then.
One of UCF's goals? Get Marshall's front line in foul trouble. The Herd's struggles in that area hav progressively gotten worse in recent games, with one center, Nigel Spikes, fouling out in just seven minutes at Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane's deep front line took advantage, and the Knights would love to do the same.
"Fortunately, we've got some depth, but it handcuffs you," Herrion said. "As a coach, it handcuffs you in your rotation and your options. It hurts the kids - now they're going back in and they're playing not to foul, and that's a hard way to play.
"You're not being aggressive or instinctive; you're trying to avoid fouls. That's not good either."
After tonight, Marshall will have played the most road games in the league, six. That means the Herd will play four of its last six at home, beginning with a 7 p.m. battle Saturday against East Carolina.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.