Marshall basketball has gotten off to a solid 13-6 (4-2) start to the season and just knocked off C-USA basketball’s flagship program Middle Tennessee on Jan. 18 to end the Blue Raiders’ 15-game C-USA winning streak.
But what has been the key to the Herd’s start to the season? Simply put, a trio of prolific players. Marshall’s depth has improved this season with the emergence of players such as Rondale Watson, Jarrod West, Jannson Williams, and others.
However, the Herd has been paced all season long by a trio of players that make up as productive of a trio as you’ll see in college basketball. The trio is led by first-team all-conference junior point guard Jon Elmore.
The Charleston, West Virginia native has had a decorated Marshall career up to this point and in the middle of his third season, he looks to continue to rewrite the history books in Huntington, West Virginia. Since transferring from VMI, Elmore has been among the best point guards in college basketball.
A stellar debut season in 2015-16 after missing the first several games of the season due to his transfer gave way to an even more stellar season in 2016-17 in which Elmore led C-USA in scoring and assists at 19.7 and 5.9 per-game respectively. And so far this season, his numbers have gotten better.
Through 19 games so far this season, Elmore is averaging 22.5 points-per-game on 43.7 percent shooting from the field, which is a career-high in both categories and top 15 nationally in scoring. Elmore is also averaging 7.3 assists-per-game, also a career-high and good for top 10 nationally.
He is also averaging a career-high in free throw percentage at 81.8 percent so far this season as well as a career high in rebounds-per-game at 5.1 per-game. Elmore will go down as one of the best players in Marshall program history and still has another season of eligibility remaining.
Another piece of the Herd’s outstanding trio is Martinsburg, West Virginia’s own C.J. Burks. Burks has been a productive player since day one for Marshall, but his role has increased from a sixth man in previous seasons to a starter this season.
The junior shooting guard has increased his first two season’s points-per-game totals from 8.8 to 9.8 all the way to 21.2 this season, good for top 25 nationally. Burks has also improved his field goal percentage to a career-high 48.2 percent so far as well as a career-high in free throw percentage at 83.3 percent.
Burks is also averaging a career-high in rebounds-per-game and assists-per-game at 4.2 and 3.3 respectively. His emergence has been big for the Herd after losing four starters from the 2016-17 season.
The final, and arguably most important, piece of the puzzle regarding Marshall’s leading trio is junior forward Ajdin Penava. The Bosnian superstar has improved as much, or more, than any player in college basketball since his first two seasons with the Herd.
Penava’s limited action his first two seasons has increased dramatically this season along with his numbers across the board. Penava is averaging 16.7 points-per-game on 62 percent shooting from the field and his field goal percentage is good for top 20 nationally.
But the improvement only starts there and he currently averages a career-high 8.9 rebounds-per-game and leads the nation with 4.8 blocked shots-per-game despite not being healthy for the better part of the last month and missing the majority of three full games.
Penava’s 38.1 percent shooting from behind the arc is also a career-high and he currently has a 33.0 player efficiency rating on the season. With Penava in the game, Marshall is a totally different team and that was evident during the recent stretch in which the Herd didn’t have his services.
Collectively, the trio of Elmore, Burks, and Penava has accounted for 1,093 points on the season and averages a combined 60.4 points-per-game, more than three Division-I teams average per-game as of Jan. 18. It’s hard to argue that this trio isn’t as good as any in the entire country, power conference or mid-major conference.
Elmore, Burks, and Penava will be crucial for Marshall moving forward as the Herd looks to remain towards the top of the C-USA standings with the next challenge coming Saturday night at home against UAB.