Preview: Middle Tennessee vs Marshall

beIN SPORTS

CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL: MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT MARSHALL

Thursday night beIN SPORTS heads to the Cam Henderson Center in Huntington, West Virginia for a rematch of last year’s Conference USA Tournament championship game. The Marshall Thundering Herd (12-6 overall, 3-2 C-USA) play host to the defending champion Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (13-4 overall, 5-0 C-USA) at 8:00PM ET / 7:00PM CT.

Head coach Dan D’Antoni - brother of Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni - has turned the Thundering Herd into one of the best scoring teams in the country. With Jon Elmore (22.7 PPG) and C.J. Burks (21.0 PPG) at guard, Marshall has the highest-scoring backcourt in the NCAA. At 87.6 points per game, they rank ninth in the country in scoring offense.

After making an unexpected run to the conference title game last year, Marshall entered the season dreaming of their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1987 - when the program was in the now-defunct Southern Conference.

However, those hopes are starting to dim as the Herd has lost two of their last three games entering Thursday night after losing dominant big man Ajdin Penava during an 87-112 drubbing at the hands of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

Their matchup with the back-to-back champs becomes even more important if Marshall intends to keep pace with the top teams in Conference USA. A loss on Thursday would put the Herd three games behind first-place just 6 games into conference play.

Despite making the NCAA Tournament 3 out of the last 5 years, Middle Tennessee basketball finds itself in a season of flux after losing Reggie Upshaw and Jacorey Williams from last season’s championship team. Four of their five conference wins have come by margins of five points or less. On paper, this seems like the year where a new team could emerge to knock them off the throne.

That said, the Blue Raiders still have to be considered the favorites in Conference USA. Despite losing Upshaw and Williams, they returned C-USA Tournament MVP Giddy Potts - and two other starters from last year’s squad. Their current leading scorer is talented wingman Nick King - a graduate transfer from Alabama. He’s averaging 21.8 points per game - the second-best average in the conference.

Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis has a 112-45 record since the team joined Conference USA in 2013. They’ve not only made it to the tournament each of the past two years, but they’ve won their first-round games both times.

Even in this “rebuilding” year, the Blue Raiders have impressive wins against Power 5 competition. Their last three losses came against the USC Trojans, #25 Miami Hurricanes and #17 Auburn Tigers - all three losses came by 6 points or less. If there is any team that has proven it can hang with the big boys, it is Middle Tennessee.

 

MIDDLE TENNESSEE KEYS TO THE GAME

Last week, we talked a big game about the stifling defense of Old Dominion. Well, the Blue Raiders are no slouches on that side of the floor themselves, especially against Conference USA competition. They are allowing teams just 57.8 points per game since conference play began. The only time they allowed a C-USA team to score more than 60 points was in a game was in a 71-66 overtime win on the road at FIU.

Their speed and length allow them to close out very effectively on three-point shooters - something they will definitely need to do against Marshall. Opposing teams are shooting 31.1% and Conference USA teams are shooting an absurdly low 23.8% from downtown against the Blue Raiders. Taking away the three-point shot is the biggest strength of the Middle Tennessee defense.

Middle Tennessee is also excellent at keeping opposing teams off the boards. They have allowed the 14th-fewest total rebounds and fourth-fewest offensive rebounds in the NCAA. Especially against teams that like to put up as many shots up as possible and push the pace, like Marshall, limiting possessions and second-chance opportunities is a critical component to success.

The Blue Raiders have struggled to shoot well this year. They are shooting a paltry 33.6% from three overall all and are even worse (29.1%) since the start of conference play. Results aren’t much better from inside the arc either. Since the start of conference play, Middle Tennessee is averaging 67.2 points per game - third-worst in Conference USA.

The offense can get a little over-reliant on the shot-making ability of Potts and King and if either (or both) of the two struggles, it can be a long night. Though big man Brandon Walters has had a couple of scoring outbursts - including a 19-point game their last time out - most of his offense comes on offensive rebounds and clean-up jobs around the basket. He is not a shot creator. Middle Tennessee is yet to find a consistent third scoring option.

In order for Middle Tennessee to win, they must:

  • Keep Marshall out of transition
  • Create open shots with solid passing
  • Get multiple players involved in offense

 

MARSHALL KEYS TO THE GAME

The Thundering Herd took more threes than just about anybody in the country last season. They ranked top 10 in the country in three-pointers made and attempted. However, they’re not deadly efficient from out there this year - 34.7% from downtown is sixth-best in C-USA. Don’t get that twisted. They will take a lot of threes and their chances to win on Thursday hinge on their ability to hit shots - even against what will be solid defense from Middle Tennessee.

Marshall’s best offensive skill is their ability to move the ball around and find the open man. Whether it’s in the half-court or on the fast break, Marshall guards - especially Elmore - are excellent at making the pass that creates an easy basket. As a team, the Herd average 17.8 assists per game - best in C-USA. Jon Elmore leads the conference with 7.3 assists per game - seventh-best in the nation. Considering how fast they play, they don’t really turn the ball over much either.

The wildcard for Marshall is (1) whether Ajdin Penava will play and (2) how effective he will be in his first game back. At the end of the Western Kentucky game where Penava left with an ankle injury, the game became a Hilltopper layup line/dunk contest. They need Penava back bad.

Penava is an absolute shot-blocking machine. He averages 4.8 blocks per game - best in the entire country and more than twice the average of the next best Conference USA player. Outside of the backcourt duo of Burks and Elmore, he is also their most reliable scorer - averages 16.7 points per game. Penava is also fourth in Conference USA with 9.1 rebounds per game. Marshall is flat-out not a good rebounding team and they are a defensive sieve. Without a physical presence in the post, Marshall will get burned in both areas.

The best thing Marshall does defensively is force teams to turn the ball over - 15.8 turnovers forced per game is the best in Conference USA. As a result of their pace of play, they can force teams to play faster they want to. They are excellent at taking advantage of the mistakes that come from that.

In order for Old Dominion to win, they must:

  • Simple - make your shots
  • Win the turnover battle
  • Keep Middle Tennessee from getting too many easy baskets

Prediction: Middle Tennessee 87, Marshall 80

Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA

Charlotte @ FAU - 7:00PM ET

Old Dominion @ FIU - 7:00PM ET

North Texas @ Louisiana Tech - 7:30PM ET

Rice @ Southern Miss - 8:00PM ET

UAB @ Western Kentucky - 9:00PM ET