Marshall Thundering Herd basketball has waited 31 years for a game of the significance that the team will be playing in Friday, a Round of 64 matchup in the NCAA Tournament with the Wichita State Shockers.
The Herd got an emotional win over Western Kentucky on March 10 for the program’s first-ever C-USA Tournament Championship and for the first time since 1987, earned a coveted spot in the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is a 13-seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament and has a Round of 64 showdown with 4-seeded Wichita State.
Marshall brings a 24-10 record into the NCAA Tournament while Wichita State brings a 25-7 record into yet another NCAA Tournament appearance for the Shockers. Wichita State finished tied for second in its first season in the AAC and made a semifinal appearance in the AAC Tournament.
While the Herd hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1987, the Shockers have had a lot of success in recent years in the big dance, including reaching the Final 4 back in 2013. But past history won’t mean much when these teams square off on Friday.
This will be just the third all-time meeting between Marshall and Wichita State with the last meeting coming during the 1941-42 season. Even though the on-court history isn’t really there, these teams have a couple basketball connections in terms of coaches.
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall was an assistant coach at Marshall from 1996-1998 and was part of the Herd’s Southern Conference regular season championship during the 1996-97 season. The coaching connections continue with current Wichita State assistant coach Donnie Jones.
Jones was the head coach of Marshall from 2007-2010 and a West Virginia native who graduated from Marshall in 1992. Jones led the Marshall program to a 55-41 overall record before leaving to take the head coaching position at UCF following the 2009-10 season.
Marshall and Wichita State will bring polar opposite styles into their showdown on Friday. The Herd runs a fast-paced, up-tempo offense that results in more possessions than most teams have throughout the course of a game. But on the flip side, the Shockers are a more physical, ground and pound type of team that doesn’t mind slowing the pace of the game down.
As expected, Wichita State is heavily favored to get the win over Marshall. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Shockers a 92.7 percent chance to knock off the Herd and the current spread has Marshall as a 12-point underdog.
A key matchup to look for in this game will be how effective Marshall forward Ajdin Penava is. Jon Elmore gets all the headlines for the Herd, and rightfully so, but one could make the argument that Penava is Marshall’s most important player. He is the Herd’s lone rim protector and has carved up a tremendous junior season.
Penava averages 15.5 points-per-game on the season along with 8.5 rebounds-per-game, but his work as a shot blocker has been the most impressive weapon in his arsenal this season. Penava leads the nation in total blocks and blocks-per-game with 130 total blocks on the season, good for an average of 4.1 blocks-per-game.
If the Shockers are able to limit Penava or get him in foul trouble, rendering him ineffective, Marshall could take a big hit going up against a Wichita State team that has four players that stand at 6-foot-9 or higher. Of course, Marshall needs its guard play to be strong, but getting production out of Penava could be the biggest key.
Simply put, this is the biggest game Marshall basketball has had in over three decades. The Herd will be playing with house money in this game because nobody expects the Herd to defeat the Shockers, an established mid-major program that has had tremendous success over the years.
Marshall can play its loose and free style with no worries in the world because the Shockers are the team that will have the pressure to get the win. If the Herd can knock down its 10 or more 3-pointers throughout the course of a game, anything can happen, especially in March.
The 13-seeded Herd and the 4-seeded Shockers tip off Friday at 1:30 ET at Viejas Arena in San Diego, California and the game will be televised by TNT.