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CUSA Marshall Western

Marshall guard Jon Elmore

SAN DIEGO — The degree of advantage in talent 16th-ranked Wichita State men’s basketball team may have over Marshall can be debated, but this cannot: The Shockers have an enormous edge in experience.

When the Thundering Herd takes the Viejas Arena floor at 1:30 p.m. Friday, it will do so with two freshmen starting and one other in the seven-man rotation.

And there is this: The entire team is playing its first NCAA tournament game, as the program has not sniffed the Big Dance in 31 years. Even Rondale Watson, who began his career at Wake Forest, has not played in the event.

Wichita State (25-7), a double-digit favorite in this 4-vs.-13 matchup, has a mountain of experience. This is the seventh consecutive trip to the NCAAs under coach Gregg Marshall, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Shockers have six seniors, including four regular starters and two who have started at least two games. Nine of the 10 players who saw NCAA action last year are back, and six current Shockers have played in multiple tourneys.

Big man Shaquille Morris, Zach Brown and Rashard Kelly are playing in their fourth tournament in a Wichita uniform, and Connor Frankamp is also playing his fourth tourney, the first coming while he was a freshman at Kansas.

Wichita State’s Marshall is coaching his 14th tourney, including seven at Winthrop, so he has the experience advantage on most coaches. And he admits this is one of the easier teams he has coached.

“Yeah, this is a very experienced group,” Marshall said Thursday. “You have six seniors [and] Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet are in their third years, so we have a lot of college basketball experience. This group, they know what they’re trying to do as well as the coaching staff.

“We’ve had a lot of good senior classes in the last seven, eight years, and their group has been very special in their own right, and now it would be nice to put a bow on top and make a deep run.”

The Herd (24-10) aims to halt that, and knows the size of the task ahead. But MU is riding a four-game winning streak, including a bye-capturing win over 24th-ranked Middle Tennessee and a Conference USA championship game thriller over Western Kentucky.

Certainly, the Herd has grown up in the past four months.

“I would say it’s a matter of focus,” said top scorer Jon Elmore. “With our young guys and kind of early on in the season, we had our bumps. But as the season progressed, you see those young guys learning. They’re sharper, more fluent in what we want to do, are more fluid.”

What the Herd will throw at the Shockers is its NBA-style offense that opponents don’t face often. The Shockers’ are playing at a faster pace this season, but …

“I’m not sure we play as fast as them,” said Shamet, the point guard who leads the team in scoring with 15 points per game. “In film, we have seen them come down and take the first semi-open look they get. They play a unique style of basketball which is not very identical to ours.”

Marshall compared MU’s pace to those at Savannah State, Oklahoma and South Dakota State. The Shockers pounded Savannah 112-66 and beat South Dakota State 95-85, but lost 91-83 to Oklahoma.

“Teams that get up and shoot 3s, we struggled with all three of them. It’s hard to guard,” Marshall said. “When they play at that tempo and have that skill across the front line and into the backcourt, it’s difficult to guard.

“You have to be a tremendous defensive team.”

MU has to continue its improved defensive play, but that will not be easy. Shamet and Morris are all-American Athletic Conference performers, and the 6-foot-8, 279-pound Morris may present the most problems.

When the Herd loses, it is often because of stellar inside play by the opposition. Some examples:

n William & Mary’s Nathan Knight scored 31 points and pulled down 12 rebounds against the Herd;

n Western Kentucky’s Dwight Coleby and Justin Johnson combined for 45 points and 22 boards in a Hilltopper rout, a game where WKU scored 70 points in the paint;

n Coleby hit for 18 points and 13 boards in the regular-season rematch;

n In the Herd’s last loss, Alabama-Birmingham’s Chris Cokley and William Lee combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds.

MU will have to match up with Wichita’s muscle and “Play Angry” mentality. It must match up with all that experience.

“They come into the tournament like this and expect to win and make a run deep,” Elmore said. “That is what we’re expecting to do, but we know it is going to be a tough matchup. But we are excited. We think we match up pretty well.

“Hopefully, it is a high-scoring affair and we come out on top.”

Doug Smock can be reached at dougsmock@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougsmock, and read his Inside Marshall Sports blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/dougsmock.