HUNTINGTON — Marshall men’s basketball coach Dan D’Antoni has been around the sport of basketball nearly his entire life.
Having that knowledge at each level of the game, the 72-year-old Thundering Herd head coach can sense when something special is on the horizon.
D’Antoni said that, after his team’s win over UTEP in Wednesday’s first-round of the Conference USA tournament, he sensed that special aura around his team, the same that he felt when the Herd won the 2018 tournament title.
“I really hated to see the season go because we had a real shot,” D’Antoni said. “You started to get that feel about this team again that we saw in that NCAA season a couple years ago.”
Instead of chasing championship dreams, his team was left unfulfilled — along with the rest of the basketball world — as the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, forced the cancellation of the rest of the NCAA basketball season.
Officially, Marshall ends its season at 17-15, which gives D’Antoni his fifth-consecutive winning season with the Herd. However, the Herd won seven of its final nine games prior to the cancellation of the season and the team started to find itself once Conference USA’s Bonus Play began.
Over the final five games of the season, Marshall had at least four double-figure scorers in each contest while averaging 83.2 points per game. That was more like the team D’Antoni thought he would see with the wealth being spread among several scorers instead of one or two main scoring options.
D’Antoni said following Wednesday’s 86-78 win over UTEP that the team looked its best within its offensive game plan in its final game. Proper pace and high-energy plays like alley-oops and lobs returned to the mix as timing continued to improve.
Marshall was led by Taevion Kinsey, who had 26 points with 21 coming in the first half.
“With that last game, I thought we really started to find our rhythm,” D’Antoni said.
The Herd also got 15 points from freshman Andrew Taylor, who keyed the season’s late turnaround by giving the Herd a third ball-handler, in addition to Kinsey and Jarrod West, that could create within the offense.
In Conference USA, the Herd finished 10-8 and earned the No. 6 seed for the C-USA tournament, topping Group Two for the second-straight season in Conference USA’s Bonus Play format. That is a significant rise from the No. 11 preseason ranking that Conference USA’s coaches handed the Herd prior to the season.
That ranking came as a result of Marshall losing two of the program’s all-time leading scorers in Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, and another experienced veteran guard in Rondale Watson, who filled many roles.
Due to those losses from the 2018-19 team, it took Marshall time to adjust with several new players entering the mix and returning players seeing new roles within the Herd’s system. Early on, it appeared that the No. 11 preseason ranking may come to fruition as the Herd struggled to a 2-6 record out of the gate and looked disorganized offensively.
The team took its lumps early on against a strong non-conference schedule that included powers Florida and Notre Dame, along with Northern Iowa and Akron, each of which won regular-season conference titles and had at least 24 wins. That tough non-conference schedule paid dividends as the Herd started to grow into its own once the conference season started, picking up steam with each contest until the season’s unexpected end.
As the Herd moves forward following the 2019-20 season, the team loses no one graduation, meaning that everyone has eligibility remaining.
With the guard trio of West-Kinsey-Taylor back intact and shooters Jannson Williams and Mikel Beyers finding their range late in the season, the onus is on post players Iran Bennett and Goran Miladinovic to continue to work on their bodies and condition for an increased pace while extending their game outside of the post.
“Iran has to get to a place where he can play quicker and faster and move his game out away from the rim a bit more to where he can face the basket,” D’Antoni said. “That would open the floor up for all of our players and for him, too. It’s the same thing with Goran.”
Once again, the non-conference portion of the schedule is expected to be a challenge — one that D’Antoni thinks will position the Herd well for its goals, which is to be an NCAA tournament team. Now that the dreams of a 2020 NCAA Tournament berth are over, the work begins on the 2020-21 season with players expected to return to Huntington if/when in-person classes resume this semester.
D’Antoni’s expectation is that the team will continue the momentum built by the end of the 2019-20 season, regardless of how it ended.
“I don’t think we’ll lose it,” D’Antoni said. “I think we’ll come back and be a lot further along than we were to start the season and searching for leadership. They started doing the things we need to do to win consistently.”