CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Just three seasons after finding itself on the right side of history, the Marshall men's basketball team is fighting like crazy to postpone its fall into the wrong side of it.Marshall coach Tom Herrion and the Thundering Herd aren't too far removed from one of the program's high points, the Herd's first NIT appearance in 24 years after finishing 21-14 in 2012. The 2013-14 edition of Marshall's team is one loss away from 20 on the season. It would be the first 20-loss season since 2004-05 and only the fourth since the Herd's inaugural season in 1906-07.Only two members of that 2011-12 team are on this season's roster - and that might be the problem.Those two holdovers are centers Yous Mbao and JP Kambola. Mbao averaged 6.5 minutes a game on that NIT qualifier. Kambola played 13 minutes all season.
This year, Mbao is averaging 7.2 minutes in 17 games. Kambola hasn't played a second, sitting the entire season due to an eligibility issue.The rest of the roster is stacked with freshmen and sophomores. The three juniors are first-year junior college transfers. Division I experience is at a premium, which isn't a good look when the Herd faces teams like Southern Mississippi, which starts four seniors and a redshirt junior, or the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which starts three seniors and two juniors, or Middle Tennessee, which starts four seniors.It's not that Marshall's young players aren't talented. Point guard Kareem Canty and forward Ryan Taylor have five Conference USA freshman of the week awards between them. But they're still young.They haven't faced years of crunch-time situations. They're not as well versed in what to do when the clock is running out and one shot can win the game.One only has to look at Saturday's loss to the Blue Raiders to see the difficulties that come from lack of experience. The Herd had 13 seconds to tie the game versus MT. Herrion drew up a play for Taylor to take the final 3-pointer using Canty as a decoy.Marshall's designed final shot came down to two of the youngest players on the court. Middle Tennessee switched on defense and blew up the play. Taylor never got the ball and Canty hoisted a contested 3-pointer that fell short.
In comparison, Marshall has watched opponents win on late 3s in three of its last five games. Two of those shots were taken by Southern Miss senior Neil Watson and Tulane junior Jay Hook.There are no Watsons or Hooks in Marshall's lineup. The Herd could use one, if not to take those game-winning shots, to keep the roster's young talent calm as the stakes climb so one of them can take that shot.But here's the big question: Even if all the players on last season's roster who could come back did come back, would that steady veteran hand even be in the lineup?The top two contenders would have been seniors DeAndre Kane and Elijah Pittman. Kane was jettisoned from the team last May and now runs with Iowa State, where he can play like the No. 1 option on the floor without the pressure of being forced to be that option. Pittman was suspended indefinitely in December and has vanished from the program ever since.Does either player fit the bill? Does Kane, who according to Sports Illustrated reports punched a teammate in a scrimmage and chucked a water bottle at a student manager who got his food order wrong?Does Pittman, who was ejected after elbowing a Western Kentucky player in the throat, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and failed a pre-trial drug screening in the process?
The solution wasn't there to begin with. So a young team will learn the hard way.The talent is there, even if the experience isn't. Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said Marshall's young nucleus of Canty, Taylor and sophomore Chris Thomas should be dangerous in years to come."Boy, they've got a bright future," Davis said. "I just think they have one of the best young teams in our league. I just think Tommy and them are snakebit a little bit. They could be right there in the middle of everything."Davis and others see the brightness of Marshall's horizon. It might not be a bad place for the Herd to look, either. The present doesn't paint such a pretty picture.