C-USA Preview: MARSHALL at UTSA

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CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL: MARSHALL AT UTSA

Through dozens of Conference USA football, baseball, and basketball games, a softball championship tournament, media days, and other events beIN SPORTS has covered over the last two years, we have never been to San Antonio. That changes Thursday night as the two highest scoring offenses in Conference USA clash deep in the heart of Texas. The Marshall Thundering Herd (14-7 overall, 5-3 C-USA) face off against the UTSA Roadrunners (11-11 overall, 4-5 C-USA) at 8:00 PM ET / 7:00 PM CT on beIN SPORTS.

UTSA enters Thursday night’s matchup off of a shocking double-digit win against UAB in Birmingham on Saturday. The Roadrunners shot better than 50% from long range and dished out a season-high 24 team assists. Even more impressive was the play of freshman guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace. Wallace handled the distribution duties with a season-high 11 assists and Jackson led the team with 24 points. That kind of mature performance from young players should have UTSA fans hopeful for the future.

In his second year as head coach, Steve Henson will be looking to lead UTSA to its first winning season since the program left the Southland Conference in 2012. 

Henson played four years as a point guard at Kansas State under legendary coach Lon Kruger, made an Elite 8 in 1988, and sits second on the Big 8 Conference career assists list. Henson played 5 seasons in the NBA for 4 different teams and was an assistant at Oklahoma for 6 years before taking the job in San Antonio.

If Henson can build on and develop the young talent the Roadrunners discovered at guard, the program may take a big step up in the coming years.

Marshall currently sits in fourth in the conference standings. The Herd are coming off a brutal stretch where they played the four remaining teams in Conference USA’s top five in consecutive weeks. Despite defending home court in hard-fought games against UAB and Middle Tennessee, they had their worst half of the year against Old Dominion and gave up the final 15 points to Western Kentucky in an 11-point road loss on Saturday.

The Thundering Herd still have the most dynamic scoring backcourt in the country in Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks - they are numbers one and two in the conference in points per game. Ajdin Penava still leads the country with an outrageous 4.8 blocks per game. In case you’re missing how crazy that is - that’s more blocks per game than any other team in the conference. Even though this team has tended to run a little to hot-and-cold for some people’s liking, there is still more than enough talent here to compete for a Conference USA championship.

MARSHALL KEYS TO THE GAME

There’s little doubt that this is going to be a high-scoring game. Marshall and UTSA are the two best scoring teams in the conference - and they’re two of the worst defensive teams as well. The Herd allows a conference-worst 81.4 points per game and 37.5% shooting from downtown. 

The times Marshall is able to play solid defense, it’s usually because Penava is a shot-blocking superhuman. They absolutely need him to be a force in the paint and on the glass if they want to keep UTSA from having their way on offense. Penava and the rest of the Marshall bigs will have to use their size and length against the small-ball lineups the Roadrunners throw out on offense and bully them physically.

The one thing Marshall does well defensively is force turnovers - 15.9 turnovers per game is the best in Conference USA. Especially against a young team, they will need to get blocks and steals to get out into transition where they are one of the deadly effective teams, not just in the conference, but in college basketball.

Their defense has some obvious holes, but it’s hard to overstate how dynamic The Herd are on offense. Burks has stepped up his game in the last month and is averaging 25 points per game in his last 10 games. He’s scored 20+ points in all but one conference game - where he scored 19 points. 

Elmore has ceded more of the scoring duties to Burks, but he is still the leading scorer (21.9 PPG) and assist-man (7.4 APG) in the conference. His triple-double performance (14 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in an overtime win against UAB is proof of his all-around improvement.

The improvement of Penava on the offensive end has been spectacular. He’s gone from a 14.3% three-point shooter as a freshman to a confident 38.5% shooter this season. Overall, he has improved his scoring output by more than 10 points a game (6.1 PPG to 16.3 PPG) from last year. 

Marshall hasn’t lost a conference game where all three score more than 10 points.

In order for Marshall to win, they must: 

  • Get their three-headed monster going offensively
  • Force a young team into turnovers and capitalize
  • Use their size to punish UTSA around the basket

UTSA KEYS TO THE GAME

It seems hard to believe that there is a team out there that wants to run more than Marshall and take more shots. The Roadrunners are taking the eighth-most shots  (65.6) per game in the country. It’s just as hard to believe that there is a team that wants to take more shots from beyond the arc than Marshall. The Roadrunners take the tenth-most three-point shots (29.2) per game in the country. 

UTSA wants both of those things.

UTSA plays small - they didn’t start a single player over 6”7 in their last game - so they will try and stretch out the defense with pace. As a result of the energy Burks and Elmore expend on the offensive end, it makes it hard for them to keep up on defense and defend guards - especially on situations where they have to switch and close out on threes. Surprisingly, the Roadrunners don’t turn the ball over very much considering how young they are.

Puerto Rican freshman phenomenon Jhivvan Jackson has been leading the way for UTSA. With a month left to go in his first season, Jackson has already won five C-USA Freshman of the Week honors. At 18.7 points per game, he is the fourth-best scorer in the conference.

In an early December out-of-conference matchup against #12 Oklahoma, Jackson had 31 points and outscored Trae Young - the nation’s leading scorer.

There are some glaring weaknesses with this team, however. 

The top four Roadrunners in minutes per game are freshmen and sophomores - they are very young. Their preference to play small helps them get out and run faster, but they leave themselves vulnerable on the glass. Right before their shock win on the road against the Blazers, Middle Tennessee pulverized them on the boards by 20 en route to a 24-point loss.

More importantly, UTSA is just entering the rough part of its conference schedule - a stretch where they play all of Conference USA’s top-five teams in a span of six games. UTSA hasn’t beaten a single team ranked in the Top 150 of the RPI rankings. Despite some solid performances, this is still a team that lost back-to-back home games against FAU and FIU.

In order for UTSA to win, they must:

  • Get hot and stay hot from three-point land
  • Keep the ball moving and force defenders to chase
  • Force contested threes and limit transition opportunities - no easy baskets

Prediction: Marshall 89, UTSA 79 

Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA
Louisiana Tech @ FAU - 7:00PM ET
Southern Miss @ FIU - 7:00PM ET
UAB @ Charlotte - 7:00PM ET
Middle Tennessee @ Old Dominion - 8:00PM ET
Western Kentucky @ UTEP - 10:00PM ET