Marshall Readies For WVU With A Spot In The Sweet 16 On The Line
West Virginia University and Marshall University have always had a complicated relationship, whether it be on the basketball court, the football field or in the academic arena.
Take hoops for instance. After a 38-year run, the annual basketball clash between the Mountaineers and Thundering Herd came to an end in the 2015-16 season.
But some things just won’t stay dead and buried. Just ask any “Walking Dead” fan.
And now by virtue of a couple opening round victories in the NCAA Tournament, the two familiar foes will meet again in San Diego. Mountain State bragging rights will be on the line Sunday night at the Viejas Arena, but the real prize will be an opportunity to advance to next Friday’s Sweet 16 in Boston, where Villanova awaits the WVU-MU winner.
For Marshall (25-10), which won its first-ever NCAA Tournament game Friday by upsetting fourth-seeded Wichita State 81-75, an opportunity to renew its rivalry with West Virginia is icing on this March Madness cake.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” said MU junior guard Jon Elmore, who leads the Herd in scoring with an average of 22.9 points per game. “I think we have a good team, and we match-up pretty well. So we’re going in confident, and we think we can win.”
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” added Marshall freshman guard Jarrod West, whose father helped lead WVU to the Sweet 16 in 1998. “Obviously, playing against West Virginia on a national stage in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament can’t be more exciting. It can’t be more hyped up than that, and we’re excited.”
Excitement and emotion will carry over to the opening tip. Then basketball ability takes over.
Marshall is a team that loves to get out and run, and also shoot plenty of three-pointers. The Herd is 10th nationally in scoring (84.2 points per game), and it has taken the sixth most threes in the country (986), making 350 of them, which is the 13th most.
It’s a style very similar to that used by Houston Rockets’ head coach Mike D’Antoni in the NBA. That makes sense because the leader of the Herd grew up right down the hall in Mullens, W.Va. Dan D’Antoni, served as an assistant for his younger brother for 10 years in the NBA with stops in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles. Dan returned to Huntington in 2014, taking over as the head coach at his alma mater. Now four years later he has MU riding high. It has won 11 of its last 13 games, and is in uncharted territory as far as an NCAA run is concerned.
But advancing to the Sweet 16 will mean navigating through West Virginia’s press and holding its own inside against the Mountaineer big men like Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad.
“The game’s going to be won on how we defend the paint,” stated D’Antoni. “They stay tight. They’ve got a good little offense. Coach (Bob Huggins) has done a great job with what they have, what they do.
“We’re going to have to try to do the best we can in that area and use our strengths to be better at what we do as opposed to what they do,” added D’Antoni. “We’re not going to stop everything. It’s impossible! (Konate is) 280 pounds, we don’t have anything like that.”
Of course, even in San Diego, the topic of renewing the series on an annual basis isn’t far behind. D’Antoni was asked what brought it to a halt two years ago.
“You will have to ask West Virginia about that,” said the 1970 Marshall grad, whose father, Lew D’Antoni, was a high school legend in southern West Virginia. “I’m not going to go just play at Morgantown, so after that, ask West Virginia. I think it should be played. You play one time at their place, one time at our place and one time at a neutral place, whatever.”
If the series is picked up again on a regular basis is still very much up in the air. One thing that is certain, though, is that Marshall and West Virginia will face off again on the basketball court Sunday night with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
The entire Mountain State, and much of the nation, will be watching.
“It’s definitely cool that we are two teams out of West Virginia, both in the round of 32 playing with a shot to go to the Sweet 16,” noted Elmore, whose grandfather, Gay Elmore, played at WVU in the early ‘60s. “So we wish them the best, and we’re going to give it our best to hopefully keep dancing and keep this dream alive.”