TULSA, Okla. -Marshall's lost basketball season was banked to a discouraging conclusion Wednesday night.Or a merciful conclusion, some might say.The best you can say about the Thundering Herd's 66-64 loss to Tulane in the first round of the Conference USA tournament is that it was not nearly as ugly as, say, the 102-46 regular-season debacle at Southern Mississippi or the 91-75 loss at Tulane. But with the memory of the Herd's run to the 2012 C-USA finals still fresh, Wednesday's game represented a long step back.So did the season, Marshall's first on the losing side since 2008-09.So what went wrong? The theories are at least as numerous as the 15 losses the Herd suffered away from its cozy Cam Henderson Center home. They include:
Kareem Canty, and the lack thereof. The time has probably long passed on that excuse. But is it an excuse?Marshall coach Tom Herrion wagered much on the freshman and got nothing but a few practices before the NCAA ruled him out. The truth is, coaches must recruit eligible players, especially point guards.DeAndre Kane stepped over to the point and led the conference in assists, but looked uncomfortable at times handling the ball against pressure. A capable Canty would have had Kane to help him in the backcourt, discouraging presses.That came into play Wednesday - not that the Herd turned the ball over in the backcourt, but expended energy and shot-clock seconds getting to halfcourt. The field-goal percentage reflected that - MU's 52.2 percent in the first half fell to 42.9 percent in a game where every shot mattered. The Robert Goff/Yous Mbao collision.Both players recovered from the horrific practice incident, but Goff seemed a fraction of his usually rugged self until late in the season. His 27-point eruption against East Carolina last weekend gave a glimpse of what might have been.Don't discount Goff's two early fouls in Marshall's setback Wednesday. As happens with big men, he never got untracked from that, playing just 14 minutes with three points and three rebounds. Defense and rebounding in general.Nobody expected the Herd to get outrebounded 17 out of 32 games, 12 of 17 times by conference foes, and nobody expected Marshall to go from the penthouse to the outhouse in defending the 3-point shot.
Marshall's second-half switch out of a seemingly hyperactive zone defense can be questioned, certainly. The Herd played its best defense of the year in the first half Wednesday, squashing 3-point attempts and even starting to frustrate Tulane's double-double machine, Josh Davis.But it was tough to argue for a zone when Tulane's 3-pointers fell. In any strategy, the Green Wave hit seven of its last nine 3-point attempts, including Ricky Tarrant's bank-shot heave that won it."The easy thing to say is to go back to the zone, but when they start making 3s, I'm just not comfortable going back to it," said Herrion, who used very little zone in his first year at MU. Can anybody shoot here?Like many teams, the Herd shot better when it penetrated and tried shorter jumpers. Hitting a conference-worst 30.7 percent on 3-pointers, Marshall might have done better not trying any, but that would have been tough against a heavy dose of zones.(Elijah Pittman summed that up Wednesday, when the ball flew out of his hands on a first-half attempt from the corner. It flew behind him into the first row at the BOK Center.)
The free-throw shooting was tough to stomach, as the Herd was plummeting toward the 50 percent mark. It recovered to hit 70 percent or better in the last four games, but finished the season at 59.8 percent. Can Herrion recruit to the Conference USA level?Big, big question. Remember, Kane and Nigel Spikes go down as Donnie Jones recruits. (In fairness, Herrion was very familiar with Kane while he was a Pittsburgh assistant. With good test scores, the Pittsburgh native may have stayed home.)Of Herrion's recruits, Justin Coleman might have been the best - if he didn't get kicked off the team. Johnny Thomas could have led the Herd to even better things in 2011-12, but he stepped aside with Coleman coming on.Dennis Tinnon was a good rebounder and a better leader. If Elijah Pittman keeps his head on straight and takes fewer 3-pointers, his senior year looks bright. Goff was much better defensively, overall. D.D. Scarver is a streak shooter who would have been a better full-time sixth man (see: Canty impact).The rest of the roster is shaky. Tamron Manning and DeVince Boykins gave good shifts late in the season, but still may not be starting material. Jamir Hanner plays at warp speed, but his offensive skills are hit and (very) miss.JP Kambola played 38 minutes for good reason. Mbao showed he still can't catch an entry pass, and played just 75. Chris Martin could draw an occasional charge, but otherwise was exposed in nonconference play. Is this following Herrion's trend in his first head coaching job?There is a parallel of sorts, but a closer look shows it's unfair.Herrion was still 80-38 in his four seasons at College of Charleston, but his Southern Conference record declined from 13-3 in 2002-03 to 9-6 in 2005-06. On the surface, he seemed to coach better with John Kresse's talent.Then again, Herrion thought he had good talent when he was unexpectedly fired, and Bobby Cremins went 22-11 in 2006-07 with that talent. Did Herrion lose this team?One could wonder at times, particularly when the Herd lost by 37 at Ohio and by 56 at Southern Miss. But the Herd's late victory over Southern Miss dampens that theory, at least. So Herrion's honeymoon is over. What now?For one thing, Conference USA will be different, though not always easier. Memphis, the schoolyard bully trying to win its seventh league tournament titles in eight tries, will be gone but Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech are coming aboard, and they're having big seasons. North Carolina-Charlotte is returning to form and a member of the Rick Pitino tree - family that is, son Richard - is coaching at another C-USA newcomer, Florida International.Old Dominion is thought to be a parallel program to the Herd, but the Monarchs collapsed to a 5-25 record. Gone in midyear was long-time coach Blaine Taylor, whose decline reportedly was abetted by his off-court issues.But the other teams aren't a pressing issue now. Herrion faces significant turnover with three big men leaving. And then there is the possibility of losing Kane - he came to school as a nonqualifer, but apparently has progressed academically to where he will earn his degree in May. Would Kane leave as a graduate transfer?Even Canty has posed doubt on his status, but he seems to be content now. "Wasn't our best season but Ryan Taylor & I [are] beyond ready," he said Wednesday night on his twitter page.Herrion has to have the program "beyond ready" when November rolls around. He has three years left on his contract, but another 13-19 campaign won't play any better with Herd fans than this one.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/dougsmock.