CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Marshall tries once again to prove it can play outside of its own gym, something happened to the opponent for its regular-season finale.East Carolina, which hosts MU at 5 p.m. today, looks a lot little better than it did back when the teams met Jan. 19 in Huntington. The Thundering Herd spanked the Pirates early and often, taking a 33-9 lead en route to a 77-56 victory.The Pirates (17-11, 8-7) haven't necessarily made the rest of Conference USA walk the plank - they're even 2-3 at home since the MU game. Yet they have clinched the No. 4 seed in the middle-heavy C-USA standings and a first-round bye in the 11-team league tournament.More important for Marshall (13-17, 6-9), ECU forward Maurice Kemp, point guard Miguel Paul and 3-point bomber Akeem Richmond haven't gone anywhere. The Herd must figure out how to slow them down again.In January, the Herd held ECU to 32.8 percent shooting, still the Pirates' lowest of the season. Richmond came off the bench to hit half his 3-point tries, but his teammates went 1 of 10.That doesn't happen all the time - the Pirates lead the league in 3-pointers made (223) by at least 13 over anybody else. And recently, long-range shooters have feasted on the Herd's defense.Marshall has plummeted to last in C-USA games in 3-point defense, allowing foes to shoot 38.5 percent. Since the first ECU game, Herd foes have hit on 50 percent or better from long range four times, with three more hitting 44 percent or better. Houston and Southern Miss combined to hit 19 of 38, an even 50 percent.
From all distances, the Herd has given up 50 percent-plus performances five times, losing four. But the last two have come against the last two opponents, Houston and Southern Mississippi. The former roughed up Marshall a week ago in Houston, winning 103-76.But Wednesday night in the 88-84 win over Southern Miss, the Herd's offense clicked pretty nicely. The Herd shot a season-high 55.1 percent, beating the old mark set three games earlier at Central Florida.Don't take that as a trend, though. Between the two high-efficiency games, the Herd shot a season-low 26.3 at home against Alabama-Birmingham, and only improved that to 36.4 percent against Houston.Marshall has other trends it is trying to buck. A win today would give MU its first two-game winning streak since Dec. 1, and would be the second "true" road win in 12 tries. And perhaps it would give the Herd momentum going into the Conference USA tournament, which begins Wednesday at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
Concerning the C-USA tourney, the Herd appears headed for the dreaded 8-vs.-9 first-round game, in which the winner gets the honor of taking on top-seeded Memphis in the quarterfinals. On their way to the Big Whatever conference next year, the Tigers are unbeaten in league play, pillaging most foes along the way.What happens to the Herd if it loses today is easiest to diagram. A loss and a Southern Methodist victory over third-place Texas-El Paso would knock MU down to the 10th seed - and remember, UTEP is a notoriously shaky road team.Should the Herd win today, it will join the middle of the pack, but that won't be much help. Almost all tiebreakers work against the Herd: It is 1-5 against the five teams either tied, a game ahead or a game behind.
Tulsa and UAB are tied for the fifth seed at 7-8 and UAB owns the tiebreaker, but that shouldn't matter. Tulsa plays at cellar-dweller Rice and UAB visits Memphis today, so you can pencil in the Golden Hurricane for the bye and UAB to join at least a two-way tie at 7-9.The Houston-Tulane winner will be the second team. If Marshall makes it a threesome, it is still stuck with a No. 8 seed.The only way Marshall can rise to No. 7 seed is if it wins, Memphis beats UAB, Tulane beats Houston and Rice beats Tulsa. That presents a four-way tie for No. 5, which would go UAB 5, Tulane 6, Marshall 7 and Tulsa at No. 8.Do not hold your breath.As for the Herd's first-round opponent, most scenarios have an eighth- or ninth-seeded Herd playing the Houston-Tulane loser. If the Herd falls to 10th, its opponent likely will be Tulane or UAB.One note about game times: In a change from previous practice, host Tulsa will get the latest game in the first and second rounds, 9:30 p.m. EDT. But if it wins the fifth bye, it will get Wednesday off, thus pushing the 8-vs.-9 game to 9:30 with the winner playing Memphis at 7 Thursday.
With Central Florida out of the tournament, there will a single session of three first-round games Wednesday, with 4:30, 7 and 9:30 tipoffs. Second-round times are the usual 1, 3:30, 7 and 9:30.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or at twitter.com/dougsmock.