HUNTINGTON — Players and coaches for NCAA-bound Marshall were floating on adrenaline Sunday evening, as they learned whom they would play later this week.
The 2,000 or so fans on hand at Cam Henderson Center let out a wild cheer when the Thundering Herd (24-10) was revealed to be playing Wichita State on Friday at Viejas Arena in San Diego. The Herd was given a 13 seed, with the Shockers at No. 4. The two sides will square off at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, with the game being aired on TNT.
That pairing was announced right after No. 5 West Virginia was announced in that San Diego “pod,” bringing the crowd into a heightened state of anticipation. That was followed by a loud “awwwww!” when the Mountaineers drew Murray State instead.
Then the Herd’s matchup was announced, bringing a loud cheer that drowned out the sound from the speakers attached to two big screens on the basketball floor. It had been 31 long years since those fans had such an event for which to celebrate.
Those fans had more sleep than players and coaches. A lot more.
“I haven’t gone to sleep yet,” said leading scorer Jon Elmore. “I’m all jacked up on some soda right now, and I don’t even drink soda, so I need a nap after this.”
Elmore scored 27 points Saturday night in the Conference USA championship game, a 67-66 win over Western Kentucky — the exact reverse of the score of the 2014 football game, in which the Hilltoppers ruined the Herd’s perfect season. Passed over for the regular season Player of the Year award, he “settled” for being the tournament MVP.
Coach Dan D’Antoni was in almost the same boat, sleep-wise. He also may have a hunger pang or two, as his meal itinerary since leaving Frisco, Texas, was light.
“One hour and two bologna sandwiches — and they weren’t ‘West Virginia steaks.’ I didn’t have time to fry them,” he said.
There have been hundreds who have played for the green and white since 1987, some getting close to making the Big Dance and others not so close. From last season’s team, which fell in the championship game, Ryan Taylor was giddy, so much he called in and said hello to, oh, a few hundred fans via speaker.
Assistant coach Mark Cline is in his eighth season, having been retained from the previous coaching era. It was about a decade since he has coached in the NCAAs at Oklahoma, but he has suffered through three 20-loss seasons in Huntington. Low on sleep himself, he took it all in stride.
“Well it has been [a long time coming], but we won 20 games four times,” he said. “I think Middle Tennessee deserved to get in ahead of some other teams that got selected. All I can do is root for those guys to get three [C-USA teams] in the NIT.”
D’Antoni is the eighth MU coach since Rick Huckabay took that 1987 Herd to the tournament, in which it lost in the first round to Texas Christian. D’Antoni was the second coach hired by athletic director, and his 2014 hiring drew a Bronx cheer from many outside observers.
One ESPN writer’s tweet from four years ago was resurrected over the weekend, and Herd fans piled on him with extra vigor. But Hamrick never wavered in his decision, even when the new coach suffered a 11-27 start.
D’Antoni is now 72-62.
“There were some people who were very critical of that decision,” Hamrick said. “Any time you make a tough decision you get criticized, but I knew at the time — you never know 100 percent, but I knew he was a guy who loved Marshall, a guy who would work hard with Marshall. [I] had a lot of faith in his brother, Mike, who was the one that said, ‘Hey, I think you need to take Danny.’
“We did. Any time you make a coaching hire you get criticized, but just wait and see happens three or four or five years later and, obviously, it’s worked out pretty doggone good.”
There will be Marshall and state ties aplenty in San Diego. That starts with Wichita State, coached by 11th-year coach Gregg Marshall, a former MU assistant.
Before this season, he brought on Donnie Jones, the former Herd and Central Florida head coach. Jones, the Point Pleasant native, lead the Herd from 2007-10 at MU and the Knights from 2010-16.
The Shockers (25-7) are making their 15th NCAA tournament appearance, advancing to the Final Four in 1965 and 2013. They joined the American Athletic Conference after 68 years in the Missouri Valley, where they finished first or second in eight straight seasons.
The Herd being in the same “pod” with WVU lends an additional spice to the proceedings. If the Herd upsets the shockers and WVU takes care of Murray State, the teams would play for the first time since the rivalry was terminated after 39 consecutive seasons. In fact, WVU president E. Gordon Gee said in January 2016 that his school would only play Marshall in Morgantown.
Even if the teams don’t hook up this weekend, D’Antoni is looking forward to a reunion.
“I’ll give Huggy [WVU coach Bob Huggins] a hug,” D’Antoni joked.