Ky. natives excited to make Rupp return
HUNTINGTON - As native Kentuckians who have played in the fabled Sweet 16 high school tournament, Elijah Pittman and Tamron Manning know firsthand what a basketball cathedral Rupp Arena is.
On Saturday, they return with their Marshall Thundering Herd for a potentially special contest against the defending national champions. Certainly, they've fielded their share of questions from teammates about the building.
"It's loud, it's pretty big," said Pittman, a Covington native. "I looked up and I hadn't seen that many fans at a high school game, and I just went out there and played. I liked it."
Manning's home is closer to Lexington, in the Scott County seat of Georgetown. Not only has he played at Rupp, he has seen a few UK games and knows what to expect.
"You can expect a lot of blue," Manning said. "It will be loud, and it's a really unique atmosphere. You'll be surprised at how big the fan support is there."
Pittman led his Holmes High team to three Sweet 16s, including the 2009 state championship, while Manning led Scott County to the 2012 finals. And now, they will join their Marshall team in a return visit to Rupp Arena, battling the coaches' poll No. 23 Wildcats in a 4 p.m. contest Saturday. The game airs on ESPN2.
Here's a quick refresher on the 36-year-old building, anchor of the downtown Lexington Center: Its listed capacity these days is 23,000, which is about how many banners and retired jerseys hang from the ceiling.
This will be the fourth time a Marshall team has played at Rupp, and the first time since Nov. 16, 2001, a 90-73 UK win over coach Greg White's Herd.
The Wildcats are 11-0 vs. the Herd in all venues, which includes Louisville and Cincinnati.
And Rupp Arena, where many opponents come to lose. All-time, the Wildcats are 484-61 in the building, an 88.8 percent clip. They began the John Calipari era with an arena-record 54-game winning streak, finally broken by Baylor on Nov. 1, 64-55.
The Herd, or least coach Tom Herrion, isn't going to let a few decades of hoops history get in the way.
"It's a great opportunity," Herrion said. "What a great venue, one of most historical buildings in all of college basketball history. ... We went to Louisville, up at the half, went to Syracuse last year. We've been some places now.
"A couple of Kentucky kids who have played in the building. That's why we scheduled it."
The Herd's 64-48 win Wednesday over Savannah State marked the return of Dennis Tinnon as a scoring force inside.
The senior from Green Bay, Wis., scored 14 points, but the bigger development was his 6-of-7 shooting from the floor. He scored in several ways: a turnaround jumper on the baseline, a jumper off his steal in the backcourt, a pair of layups against the press, an old-fashioned "garbage" basket off a loose ball and a 15-foot jumper.
It was Tinnon's best game since his 24-point game against Nevada, in which he hit 9 of 12. He has had two double-doubles since then, but he didn't shoot quite that well. Against West Virginia and Cincinnati, he was a combined 0 for 7.
"It felt good. Last couple of games, I haven't showed up at all," Tinnon said. "And I was down on myself for not being able to step up and do what I have to do to help us win. Tonight, I was more focused on getting the ball and going straight up, strong, and not going up so soft and doing flimsy layups."
Other players stepped forward, including Chris Martin. Benched in favor of Manning at the point, Martin still played 25 minutes, scoring eight points with two assists and a career-high four steals.
Martin contributed to the Herd's 15 bench points, the most since Nov. 18 at Hofstra. The reserves helped the Herd come back from an early deficit in the first half.
For 2 minutes, 10 seconds, the Herd lineup was Martin, D.D. Scarver, Jamir Hanner, DeVince Boykins and Robert Goff. That quintet brought the Herd back from down 14-6 to behind just 16-14.
"Our bench really ignited us a bit in that first half," Herrion said.
When Savannah State left the Henderson Center without a 3-point goal, it was the first time Marshall blanked an opponent since Dec. 29, 1991 against Penn State in Palm Beach, Fla. - a span of 622 games.
The Nittany Lions only took three in beating coach Dwight Freeman's Marshall team 78-64, so that stat wasn't a credit to the Herd's defense. Wednesday was a different story, as the Herd rekindled recent memories of stinginess from the arc - such as 2010-11, when opponents clanked at a 29.8 percent rate.
"Our first two teams here were top 10, I believe, in 3-point field goal percentage defense," said Herrion, in his third season at MU. "I've been a little bit upset in that area, among many. We haven't guarded the 3 very well, including against Cincinnati when they broke the game open on three or four straight 3s."
Guard Kelvin Amayo took the Gullickson Hall floor Thursday for his first day with the Herd. (The Henderson Center was being used for a women's game.)
Thus begins another subplot for this team's roller-coaster season: How proficient will he be in his belated start to his career, and how well will he mesh with his teammates.
Amayo, a 6-foot-4 native of Riverside N.J., via NIA prep in Newark, signed at Towson but failed to gain initial eligibility in the fall of 2011. He sat out the fall semester entirely, then enrolled at Marshall as a rare mid-year "prop" case. He became eligible Thursday with the posting of fall semester grades.
He was considered a recruiting coup for Towson and not exactly a bad catch for MU. But Herrion warns against unrealistic expectations, especially with Kentucky serving as his probable college debut.
For one thing, Herrion doesn't know what to expect from Amayo. Really.
"I've never, ever been in this situation," Herrion said. "And I'm not speaking negatively about Kelvin, I've just never been in a situation where a kid gets eligible immediately that has never practiced. I've had kids that have transferred, sit-outs, where you practice every day. So this is all new to me, too."
As Herrion talked about preparations for the UK game and for working over an 11-day Christmas break, he referred to Amayo and to the possible return of DeAndre Kane and big man Yous Mbao, the latter still recovering from a practice collision with Goff.
"We'll add a player in the next couple of days," Herrion said, referring to Amayo, "and hopefully get a couple of guys back off the injury shelf in the near future, at some point. That excites me."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.