By Chris Jackson
Everything shaped up the way the state of West Virginia wanted to.
The 13th-seeded Marshall Thundering Herd pulled off the upset over Wichita State. Then fifth-seeded West Virginia followed that up with a 17-point victory over Murray State.
Now, the two Division 1 schools from West Virginia will square off for a shot at the Sweet 16 at 9:40 p.m. ET Sunday in San Diego.
“It’s just one of those things you know what type of game it’s going to be,” said WVU redshirt sophomore guard James “Beetle” Bolden. “It’s just like the Pitt game that we had earlier this year. We know it’s going to be a hard fought battle and we know that it’s two sides to the state of West Virginia. It’s either us or Marshall, so this is a pretty big game.”
Friday was a monumental day for Marshall. In its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 31 years, it earned its first-ever victory in March Madness behind a 27-point effort from junior guard Jon Elmore.
But while that was a historic afternoon, Marshall wants more. There is still a lot of work to be done, and defeating WVU would put it one step closer to its ultimate goal.
“I think we’re set in history,” Elmore said. “A Marshall team hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament in 31 years, but the thing we keep telling each other is we are not satisfied. Yeah, we have done a lot of stuff that hasn’t been done in a long time, but we want to keep winning. Our goal at the beginning of the year is to win a National Championship.”
Elmore is the player that keeps this up-tempo Marshall offense going. He is the only player in the country averaging 22 points, six assists and five rebounds per game. He is also just one of two players to rank in the top 10 in scoring and assists, with the other being Oklahoma’s Trae Young, who went 0-2 against WVU this season.
The Charleston native made four 3s to help him score 27 points in the win versus Wichita State. It marked the third straight game he made at least four 3s and scored 26-plus points, which followed up five threes and 26 points against Southern Miss in the Conference USA semifinals and seven threes and 27 points in the C-USA Championship against Western Kentucky.
However, WVU has shown it can defend some of the top offensive players in the country. It held Young to his lowest assist totals of the year, including the mere one assist he dished out in the second meeting.
And then it shut down Murray State star Jonathan Stark on Friday. Stark, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year who averaged 21.8 points per game, scored just nine points on 1-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-10 shooting at the three-point line.
WVU wants to defend Elmore similarly to how it honed in on Stark.
“He’s a good player,” said WVU freshman forward Teddy Allen. “He averages 23 I think, so the same formula.”
Elmore is a big part of Marshall’s success, especially offensively, but head coach Dan D’Antoni’s team is among the best nationally as a group in terms of putting the ball in the basket. It ranks 10th in scoring (84.2 points per game), 11th in passing (17.1 assists per game) and has attempted the sixth-most threes (986).
What especially sticks out is how Marshall scores beyond the arc, looking like the NBA’s Houston Rockets in a sense, who is coached by Dan D’Antoni’s brother, Mike D’Antoni. The Herd are No. 22 nationally in three-pointer per game (10) and are No. 13 in threes made this season (35).
Marshall has only lost twice in the 10 games it has connected on at least 40 percent beyond the arc.
“They shoot the three-ball really well,” Allen said. “They’re a good transition team. They’re a good offensive team all around.”
The Herd get up a lot of shots and score because of the system D’Antoni has devised, which is one of the fastest-paced teams in all of college basketball. They average the seventh-most possessions per game (78.3), with those possessions averaging 14.2 seconds, which is No. 3 in the country.
Yet it’s not like WVU and its press defense have not faced offenses that run like this. Oklahoma right ahead of Marshall at No. 2 in average time of possession (14.0 seconds).
“I think we still can press them,” Bolden said. “We’ve just got to rotate early and do those things more earlier than we would a halfcourt team. They’re a good transition team. They love to get the ball out up the floor and get easy transition buckets, so we’ve just got to play team defense and try to limit their transition points.”