If you want a tuneup for the Conference USA postseason, trips to Birmingham, Alabama, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, should be plenty.
That’s Marshall’s itinerary for the final week of the regular season, a stretch that begins with Thursday night’s game against Alabama-Birmingham at Bartow Arena. Tipoff is 8 p.m., with the game airing on beIN Sports.
After that, the Thundering Herd (20-9, 11-5 Conference USA) takes on league leader Middle Tennessee in a rematch of Marshall’s 73-63 win on Jan. 18. That result is the Blue Raiders’ only blemish in league play.
“That’s a pretty good task,” said point guard Jon Elmore. “A little test for what is ultimately next week. They’re two of the better teams in the conference; I know UAB’s been a little up and down this year [but] they’re still tough, especially playing at their place. And then you go to Middle, top-25.
“But we beat them already once this year, so we’re confident as we can be. We’re not going to take anybody lightly, but we’ve seen what they can do and know what we can do, so we’re ready to go.”
Slumping UAB (17-12, 8-8) has beaten Marshall four straight games at Bartow Arena, last losing in January 2012. The Blazers had beaten the Herd eight consecutive times at any venue until the Herd prevailed 86-78 in overtime on Jan. 20 in Huntington.
In many ways, that was a strange game. For one thing, it was the game in which Jon Elmore hit 3 of 16 from the floor and still racked up a triple-double — 14 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. He hit all eight free throws, leading the Herd to an 18-18 night in that discipline. By contrast, UAB went 5 of 13.
Elmore’s efforts, along with an 11-rebound game from Ajdin Penava, helped the Herd stay close on the boards. But MU had trouble dealing with Chris Cokley and William Lee (combined 41 points, 24 rebounds) inside and Nate Darling (5 of 10 from 3-point range, 21 points) outside. Nick Norton had 10 assists.
“They’re still well-coached, they’re still a dangerous ball club,” head coach Dan D’Antoni said. “They’ve still got two inside people who are really good; they’ve got that little guard [Norton] running them, who they lost last year [to injury].”
For Marshall, that was a game in which C.J. Burks struck for 24 points, Penava had 17 and Rondale Watson had 16. Watson’s knee has been an issue, but a magnetic resonance imaging exam this week showed no tear and he has been cleared to play.
Watson and the Herd could use an extra day rest after the weekend, and it’s fighting for the fourth and last bye to the C-USA tournament next week. MU is a game ahead of Texas-San Antonio, which owns the tiebreaker and plays at North Texas and moribund Rice.
That gives this week a tournament-type flavor. Just to thicken the plot, MTSU and Western Kentucky play Thursday night in Murfreesboro, with first place on the line.
What D’Antoni never wants to do is to put additional pressure on his troops. He simply wants his team to improve and enjoy the sport of basketball.
“If you play well, you’re going to win enough to have a good frame of mind,” he said. “Our first year here, we lost 15 [in a row], but our play was getting better and they could see it, so they never quit. They were ready to play the next game.
“When you play well, up to your abilities, that’s my criteria of winning. A lot of people would disagree with that, but that’s them.”
BRIEFLY: Elmore continues to lead C-USA in all-games scoring (22.6) and assists (6.9). Nationally, he is eighth in both categories, while Penava remains the leader in shot-blocking (122, 4.52). In conference games only, Burks remains on top, though Elmore has closed the gap to 22.5-21.7. Thirty-eight-point games will do that. … UAB leads the all-time series 18-7, and is 9-3 in Birmingham.