HUNTINGTON — Just before midnight on March 11, Marshall’s men’s basketball team wrapped up a win over UTEP in the first round of the Conference USA tournament.
The victory meant a date with Louisiana Tech the following night, and players were looking forward to it.
The teams had already locked up in an epic battle in Huntington during the regular season, one that saw the Thundering Herd come away with an 83-79 overtime win in the Feb. 8 affair.
As tournament play started, each team had dreams of a Conference USA title and the other was standing in their way, so emotions were high.
Neither would realize those dreams, however, as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and everyone left Frisco, Texas, feeling a bit unfulfilled as the basketball season was subsequently canceled.
Now, as the calendar changes from what has been the most trying year in sports, Marshall and Louisiana Tech are again matched up, looking to open a new conference slate.
The championship dreams are still there, and so too is that feeling of a game that never saw the court.
It is a poetic twist in the opening of the Conference USA schedule that players think is fitting as they get set to battle at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston, Louisiana.
“We knew we beat them in the regular season so the conference [tournament] game was going to be tough,” said Marshall point guard Jarrod West. “But at the same time, we thought we had a good opportunity to go out and beat them in that quarterfinal game. For us to get back on the court with them for the first conference game, that’s how it should happen.”
Marshall forward Jannson Williams said there was never any question that it had to be that matchup to lead things off in the 2020-21 conference slate.
“It had to, no question,” Williams said. “We were supposed to play them and we were definitely looking forward to playing them. We had beaten them and we knew what we needed to do to beat them again.
“It’s kind of funny how it all comes together to where we play La Tech in the first conference game.”
When Marshall (6-1) takes on Louisiana Tech (7-2) this time around, the Bulldogs will have a different look, especially in the backcourt, where former All-Conference USA player DaQuan Bracey is now gone.
Kalob Ledoux has now taken over as the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, averaging 14.4 points.
Rangy guard JaColby Pemberton also provides leadership in multiple areas, averaging nearly 10 points while grabbing 7.7 rebounds per game.
The Bulldogs’ frontcourt features some big bodies. Freshman Kenneth Lofton Jr. is second on the team in scoring (10.3) and rebounding (6.8) and West Virginia transfer Andrew Gordon is another 6-foot-10, 260-pound athletic presence who will challenge the Herd down low.
“They are definitely more physical than us, so we’ve got the lower hand there,” Williams said. “We’ve just got to be smart about it.”
Marshall counters that physicality of the Bulldogs with its up-tempo scheme that will force those big men for Lousiana Tech to defend the perimeter and get out in transition.
The Herd will look to push the pace behind West and Taevion Kinsey, who leads Conference USA in scoring at 21.7 points per game.
Following Friday night’s game, the teams will make adjustments and run it back from the Thomas Assembly Center at 7 p.m. Saturday as part of Conference USA’s new scheduling format.
Conference USA also announced that it was going to a divisional format for the 2020-21 season, so this serves as a cross-divisional matchup for both teams — the only one of its kind in the league on opening weekend.