HUNTINGTON — Danny D’Antoni was grasping at straws for a fifth starter.
First, Marshall University’s veteran head basketball coach started 6-foot-8 junior Jannson Williams at forward for the Thundering Herd’s first 13 games.
It wasn’t working. Williams was averaging only 7.0 points.
So, next, D’Antoni elevated sixth man Darius George to the starting lineup. That wasn’t successful, either. The 6-7 junior averaged only 5.0 points in five starts and wasn’t as productive as he had been coming off the bench.
Back to the drawing board.
That’s not a good feeling for a coach, who is 18 games into the season. It almost seemed like D’Antoni was starting five just because he couldn’t play four-on-four basketball.
And that’s when it happened.
“I think I’m going to start Marko,” said D’Antoni, referring to true freshman Marko Sarenac, while kibitzing before a practice at the Cam Henderson Center.
A certain sports writer was surprised.
“Really?” I said with raised eyebrows. “Why?”
D’Antoni replied, “He doesn’t make mistakes.”
It seemed like a reach, considering the 6-7 Serbian was averaging only 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.1 minutes of playing time. Yet, two days later D’Antoni made it happen, starting Sarenac against Old Dominion.
The true freshman didn’t distinguish himself, going scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting on 3-pointers during 13 minutes of playing time. Yet Marshall won, 68-67.
Since then, Sarenac had made three consecutive starts, averaging 12.3 points on .696 shooting (16 of 23), including .571 on 3s (4 of 7), with 4.7 rebounds in 25.7 minutes of playing time.
Sarenac scored in double figures in all three games. That includes 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in Marshall’s 84-74 win at FIU on Thursday.
Needless to say, Sarenac will make his fifth consecutive start at 4 p.m. Saturday when Marshall plays Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Florida.
Color me surprised.
But not D’Antoni.
“No, I’m not surprised,” he said. “I always thought he would be a contributor. Even as a true freshman, I thought he would contribute. I didn’t know he was going to be a starter. But when you get a chance, you get a chance. You never know when it’s coming. You just get in the boat and start rowing.”
Of course, D’Antoni had an advantage. He watched Sarenac play in prep school.
“He’s athletic and he jumps well,” explained MU’s veteran coach. “He’s surprisingly athletic. He looks it, but he doesn’t show it. If you look at his body, he’s got long legs, runs easily ... he will surprise you with his athleticism because he doesn’t display it all the time.
“Another thing you can’t count out is when they come over to this country from Serbia, they come to play basketball. They want to be good at basketball and they’re willing to work. They get in the arena and they do a lot of extra work to get better. He has done that.”
Now, it’s showing because Sarenac has played much better as a starter than coming off the bench.
“I think coming off the bench, he hadn’t gathered enough experience,” said D’Antoni. “Once he began starting, he started getting on the floor long enough for him to get a better feel of what was going on. I believe that is going to continue. The last couple of ballgames, it’s like he’s found it. He’s found his niche.”
A certain sports writer concedes.
That’s why D’Antoni is the coach.