FRISCO, Texas — Dan D’Antoni is proud to be a hillbilly.
The 71-year-old Marshall Thundering Herd men’s basketball head coach not only accepts it, he wears it proudly on the T-shirt he designed with the “Hillbilly Ball” nickname displayed on the front.
D’Antoni is from Mullens, in the southern coalfields, an area he said was looked down upon or given nicknames such as hillbilly.
“I’ve always been the type if you want to name me, go ahead, and I’m going to make that name really good,” he said.
A big part of his pride comes from building a basketball program that has 92 victories in his five seasons (92-78) and takes a 19-14 record in a Tuesday home game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament oriented to mid-major and small schools.
NCAA Tournament and National Invitation Tournament lineups will be announced Sunday before the College Basketball Invitational and CIT fields are completed. As of Saturday afternoon, schools announcing acceptance of CIT bids included Marshall, Robert Morris, Charleston Southern, St. Francis (N.Y.), Quinnipiac, NJIT and Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
The CIT is a “pay-to play” event with a reported $30,000 fee plus travel expenses to host a home game.
D’Antoni is doing it primarily with Mountain State players. This season’s Herd roster has five state natives, and even the coaching staff has a heavy regional flavor.
Conference USA’s all-time points (2,555) and assists (765) leader, senior point guard Jon Elmore, is from Charleston. Marshall top-10 career scorer, senior guard C.J. Burks, hails from Martinsburg. Sophomore starting guard Jarrod West is a Clarksburg native and senior guard Rondale Watson, an important sixth man, comes from Lewisburg.
Freshman guard Jeremy Dillon calls Delbarton home and D’Antoni includes freshman guard Luke Thomas and senior forward Christian Thieneman as part of the home-grown group because they’re from right across the river in Proctorville, Ohio, and nearby Louisville, Kentucky, respectively.
D’Antoni’s staff includes assistant coaches Mark Cline (Williamson), Cornelius Jackson (Oak Hill) and director of operations Neal Scaggs (Logan).
Elmore said playing with a group of players known as the “304 Boys” because of the area code they come from has created a family-like atmosphere.
“At Marshall, I don’t think it gets enough credit for being a family,” Elmore said. “Everybody from Coach D’Antoni hanging out with us joking around, the assistants, every player to the managers to the security for the team, training staff and stuff like that. You don’t see a lot of that because everybody just sees what goes on on the court or in practice, but there’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes.
“We’re just very blessed and fortunate to have each other and represent the school.”
Elmore said teammates root for each other and that’s a big part of it. He said when you go to war every day and know teammates have your back, it makes you play a little bit more free.
D’Antoni, a Marshall graduate (1970) who played point guard for the team, said he’s extremely proud because players want to be part of the Herd. He’s happy about West Virginia producing NCAA Division I players and said he always thanks the high school coaches that train them and make his job easier.
“I just want the state to be proud of what we are and who we are and I think these guys are great representatives of that.”