Having supplied the “2” in Middle Tennessee’s 16-2 league record, Marshall has served notice that it is capable of beating anybody this week at the Conference USA basketball tournament.
Needing a win over a Top 25 team on the road to avoid playing the first round this week in Frisco, Texas, the Thundering Herd delivered by downing the Blue Raiders 76-67 Saturday night in Murfreesboro. It was the Herd’s first win over a Top 25 team in seven seasons, and the first on a ranked team’s floor in 17.
But Marshall (21-10) has shown it can lose to any C-USA team, or those in the top six of the final standings. The Herd was 12-6 in league play, 3-6 among the other top-6 teams and 9-0 against everybody else.
When fourth-seeded MU takes to Court B of the Ford Center at The Star at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, it will face No. 5 Texas-San Antonio or No. 12 Texas-El Paso. Both are capable of doing a little damage.
Yes, even UTEP, the team whose coach quit in November and who lost 82-33 to Old Dominion three weeks ago. The Miners (11-19) finished with a face-saving 4-2 run, avoiding elimination from the 12-team tournament with a 68-66 win at North Texas. Seven-foot-1 Matt Willms caught a lob and dunked with 3 seconds left for the game-winner.
“I know UTEP historically shouldn’t be talking about getting in the tournament,” said interim coach Phil Johnson. “[But] we’re proud to be in and really proud to represent Miner nation.”
Marshall knows painfully about UTSA (18-13), one of the league’s most improved teams. The Roadrunners defeated the Herd 81-77 on Feb. 1 at San Antonio, as Jhivvan Jackson scored 23 points.
But Jackson won’t be in Frisco, as a knee injury ended his season early. Deon Lyle, a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, is helping pick up the slack, as shown in the 79-60 win Saturday over Rice. Lyle scored a team season-high 33 points, hitting eight 3-pointers.
“He took 24 shots, and 21 or 22 of those were pretty good shots,” said UTSA coach Steve Henson. “We swung the ball around to Deon a lot, and he’s got that high release.”
Two days after the loss to UTSA, Marshall won 74-65 at UTEP, taking a 10-point halftime lead and holding off two rallies afterward.
Should Marshall win Thursday, it likely will face, yes, Middle Tennessee.
In stat numbers from the 18 conference games, Jon Elmore nosed out teammate C.J. Burks for the scoring lead, 22.1 to 21.8 points per game. Charlotte’s Jon Davis (20.3), MTSU’s Nick King (19.8) and North Texas’ Roosevelt Smart (19.7) round out the top five. Elmore leads handily in all games, 22.8 to 21.3 for Burks and 21.2 for King.Elmore slipped into second in assists, tied with Old Dominion’s Ahmad Caver with 6.2. Elmore continues to lead handily in all games (6.9), but Florida International’s Brian Beard Jr. (6.5) averaged more in league play.
MU’s Ajdin Penava (60) easily led in blocks, Elmore led in minutes (39.2) and Burks was second in free-throw percentage (.897). As a team, MU led in scoring (81.0), free throw percentage (.768), blocks (107) and 3-point goals made (10.4).
In the nine conference home games, Marshall’s average announced attendance of 5,928 was fifth behind MTSU (6,935), ODU (6,654), WKU (6,154) and Texas-El Paso (6,021).