HUNTINGTON — Is Marshall’s upcoming bout with Western Kentucky a big game, or is it a big deal merely because it’s the next game?
Has the Thundering Herd-Hilltoppers home-and-home become a wee little more important than the other 16 Conference USA games?
“Not really. It’s the next game,” said Herd coach Dan D’Antoni. “I get as high for Southern Miss as I do for Western. And that’s not equating the two programs, that’s how I program [myself]. You know, the next game is the most important game.”
But then again …
“It’s huge. It’s kind of a rivalry game in the conference,” said Jon Elmore, Marshall’s top scorer. “Locations [of league teams] aren’t that close to us [but] Western is one of the closer ones. The games got a little chippy in the past; you know the story with football, how they hate each other.
“We’re looking forward it to it. It’s been great, I don’t know if there’s been any blowouts in my time, so hopefully we can keep the winning streak alive against them.”
As the teams square off at 7 p.m. Saturday, with Stadium televising, the Herd (11-4, 2-0 Conference USA) carries a four-game winning streak over the Hilltoppers (10-5, 2-0), all with Elmore on the floor.
The two wins in Huntington were romps, 94-76 on Jan. 3, 2016, and 94-80 on Jan. 21, 2017, both seeing MU leading by 25 points or more. Add in an 11-game winning streak and several recoveries from illness, and that seems to bode well for the Herd.
So does the team’s ability to have somebody step up when others have a tough game.
The Herd’s sweep of Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech last week brought examples. In the former win, Ajdin Penava and Rondale Watson scored 18 and 20 points, respectively, to make up for C.J. Burks missing the game and Elmore going scoreless in the first half. In the latter, Elmore and Burks combined for 55 points as Penava’s illness kept him scoreless.
The Herd might know WKU’s uniforms well, and certainly knows Justin Johnson. Johnson is tough enough to have practiced with the football team in early August, and was considering a two-sport calendar before returning to basketball full-time. A second-team All-C-USA pick, the 6-foot-7 senior is a solid 245 pounds.
Everybody else, save for walk-on Tyler Miller, is new — two transfers who sat out last year, two graduate transfers and three freshmen on a numerically challenged roster.
The eight-man roster expanded to nine on Friday as the NCAA ruled 6-6 freshman guard Josh Anderson was eligible immediately. His transcript had been flagged for further scrutiny.
WKU coach Rick Stansbury has had to dial back his usually intense practices, and he has noticed when the team drags and is searching for a second wind. But that doesn’t mean the Hilltoppers will shorten the game.
“It should be a high-octane game,” Stansbury said after the win over Southern Miss. “We’re going to run, too. We’ll run, but at the same time we’ve got to be smart in how we run. What they do [Marshall], they do better than anybody else in this league, run and shoot 3s.
“They’ll let you have some layups, sometimes, but after that we’ve got to make them guard us some. We’ve got a couple of guys [Justin Johnson, Dwight Coleby] they’ve got to guard along that baseline.”
That will test Marshall’s defense, which showed signs of considerable improvement last week. And it will test the Herd’s preparation.
“We know they’re just like La Tech,” said forward Jannson Williams. “We’ve studied their moves, studied their game, and we’re ready for them, honestly.”
BRIEFLY: Unusual stat item: Two players in the top 10 in both points and assists are playing in the Mountain State on the same day — Marshall’s Elmore and Oklahoma’s Trae Young, who visits West Virginia. … Four teams are tied atop the C-USA standings at 2-0 — Marshall, WKU, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion. MTSU plays at Florida Atlantic on Saturday, while ODU takes on North Texas. … WKU leads the all-time series 13-10. … After Saturday night, the Herd goes on the road next week to play Charlotte and Old Dominion. The next home game is a big one — Middle Tennessee State on Jan. 18.