Herd seniors hope to turn tables on USM
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -Two strong emotions will collide tonight when Marshall takes on Southern Mississippi at Cam Henderson Center.
First, it will be senior night for three Thundering Herd players - Nigel Spikes, Dennis Tinnon and Robert Goff. They will be accompanied to the floor by varying family members, basking in the applause from the home crowd and receiving a memento of their days in Huntington.
Then those seniors, along with their teammates, must turn around and face a team that inflicted the most embarrassing loss a Marshall team has suffered in 37 years. That 102-46 loss to Southern Miss on Jan. 23 in Hattiesburg, Miss., has punctuated a surprisingly difficult season.
The Herd would love to puncture the Golden Eagles' NCAA tournament bubble in the 7 p.m. game televised by CBS Sports Network.
"It's definitely a statement game," Goff said. "We're definitely going to come out playing like that, especially us three seniors, me, 'Scoop' and Dennis. We just have to come out and bring it. It's in the back of our minds."
Before practice Monday afternoon, the three seniors had more pleasant thoughts about their playing careers and their futures. All have enjoyed big games and big moments - for example, all played important roles in the Herd's run to last year's Conference USA championship game and subsequent National Invitation Tournament bid.
"It was exciting to know I played role in helping us get there," Tinnon said. "We're struggling this year, but I think we still have a chance to get there. I'm going to do anything in my heart, in my power to help us get these three or four games in a row, get to the championship game and beat whoever we have to play."
Spikes is the elder statesman, having come to Marshall in 2008 as a nonqualifier. He enters tonight having started 61 of his 119 games, scoring 512 points with 610 rebounds and 115 blocks - the latter number sixth on MU's all-time list.
He was particularly happy to swat nine at home against Central Florida and ex-Herd coach Donnie Jones. "That felt pretty good - and I did it against the old coach," he said with a grin.
Tinnon and Goff are finishing two-year careers, with Tinnon proving to be a prodigious rebounder from the minute he donned a green uniform. The Green Bay, Wis., native has 620 rebounds in 64 games, tying him for 22nd with four-year starter Tom Curry (1984-88).
Furthermore, Tinnon is one of six MU players to have at least 600 rebounds over two seasons. Also contributing 664 points, he has 21 career double-doubles, nine this season.
He's sorry he hasn't racked up more.
"I could have had 50 of them," he quipped.
Goff has started the last three games and 40 of his 61. He has contributed 313 points and 250 rebounds, with 58 blocks.
His most vivid memory was the atmosphere at Syracuse, which he called "crazy, kind of overwhelming." His worst memory had nothing to do with defeats, but waking up after a horrific practice collision with 7-foot-2 teammate Yous Mbao. He is thankful to return to good health, needless to say.
Coach Tom Herrion is proudest of the trio's impending degrees - Spikes and Tinnon in business management, Goff in general studies.
"We had to do a lot to keep [Spikes] here, in terms helping him get his academics straight when I got here," Herrion said. "Nigel has been here five years, two years with former coaches and three years with us - it's been unbelievable to watch his maturation, his growth on and off the floor, his personality. He needs one class this semester to get his degree. I'm most proud of that.
"And Dennis and Rob only being here two years, but it seems like it's been so much longer. I think what we've done for both of those guys is created a stable environment for them, maybe the first time in their lives, and they've excelled on and off the floor."
Those three will be needed to help the Herd (12-17, 5-9 Conference USA) overtake the Golden Eagles (22-7, 11-3), coached by Donnie Tyndall after the resurrection by Larry Eustachy ended last spring. The Eagles, a solid second place in the C-USA standings, made the 2012 NCAA tournament as an at-large team and is a fringe candidate to do it again.
Several Eagles are putting up better numbers in conference play (partly owing to the destruction of Marshall). That includes Neil Watson, who averages 10.4 points, 4.4 assists and shoots 50.9 percent in the 14 league games.
Six-foot-5 forward Dwayne Davis' scoring average has increased to 15.6 points, while Jonathan Mills' rebounding mark has bumped up from 7.3 to 7.7 per outing. As a team, the Eagles are shooting 48.5 percent in conference play.
Last weekend, Watson scored 26 points and Mills had 17 rebounds in an 88-69 defeat of East Carolina.
"They pass the ball really well as a team," Herrion said. "Shoot it well. They've got a lot of weapons. Donnie's done a really good job in the transition."
Marshall is tied for eighth place (removing Central Florida from the standings) with Houston, but the Cougars own the tiebreaker after their 103-76 blitzing of the Herd last weekend. The Herd is two games behind a three-way tie for fourth but would need to win its last two games and get a "Hail Mary" of help to nab one of five first-place byes in the C-USA tournament.
One personnel note: Jamir Hanner, who did not make the trip to Houston to catch up on academics, will dress tonight.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@ wvgazette.com or at twitter.com/dougsmock.