Assessing Marshall Basketball’s 2018-19 Season Heading Into Bonus Play

After a historic 2017-18 season in which Marshall basketball finished 25-11 with a C-USA Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament Round of 32 appearance, expectations were sky high for the Thundering Herd heading into the 2018-19 season.

The Herd returned four starters and other key contributors from that 2017-18 team, which led to a preseason number two pick in C-USA according to the preseason coaches poll.  However, those lofty expectations have not been reached through the first 27 games of the season with only four regular-season games remaining before the C-USA Tournament.

Marshall got off to a hot start with a 4-0 start with a win over a Hofstra team that currently sits at 22-5 overall and first place in the CAA.  However, adversity set in following that undefeated start and the Herd lost four out of its next five games.  Marshall rebounded with two straight wins over Morehead State and Akron, but the momentum would be short-lived.

Back-to-back blowout losses to Texas A&M and Virginia closed out the regular season with the Herd taking a 7-6 record into C-USA play.  The start of conference play looked to be just what the doctor ordered for Marshall, who went on to win its first five league games to sit at 12-6 overall and 5-0 in C-USA play.  But much like non-conference play, the good times wouldn’t last.

A string of three road games in a six-day stretch dropped the Herd to 5-3 in C-USA play, one of those losses being a 50-point loss at Southern Miss.  Marshall returned home and split a pair of games with UTEP and UTSA, but would fall in its next four games before gaining a home win against Middle Tennessee to improve to 14-13 overall and 7-7 in C-USA play.

Marshall will be the No. 7 seed heading into the new C-USA bonus play format in which the Herd wound up in the second pod grouped together with teams 6-10 in the C-USA standings.  The Herd will travel at Louisiana Tech on Feb. 28 and at North Texas on March 3, followed by home games against Florida International on March 6 and Florida Atlantic on March 9 to close out the regular season.

With everyone’s sights set on bonus play and the C-USA Tournament, Marshall will be looking to right the ship of what has to be considered an otherwise disappointing season up to this point.  Many felt the Herd could be a prime contender to win C-USA this season, but bring a lackluster 7-7 C-USA record into bonus play.

The Herd did face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in C-USA, but a 7-6 record in non-conference play wasn’t what anybody expected.  Simply put, a 14-13 record at this point is not good enough for a team that had so much potential.  Sure, the loss of superstar big man Ajdin Penava has made a big difference, but the Herd’s disappointing season can’t rest solely on that missing piece.

Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni has not been pleased with his team’s heart and will to win this season.  He has called his team out on a few different occasions this season, including after the loss to Texas A&M.  “We started out like the team I remember last year.  Everybody was hungry.  Everybody wanted to come out and win.  Everybody was together.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost that,” he said.

He also was critical of his team following the loss to Virginia, saying “We started being a little more aggressive in the second half, but we’re soft.  We don’t make the plays you have to make.”  D’Antoni’s criticism reached a fevered pitch following a home loss to UAB on Feb. 14, in which he was as disappointed in his team and upset as he has ever been in his five seasons as head coach of the Herd.

Penava’s departure was a big one for a multitude of reasons.  He was the Herd’s lone rim protector last season, top rebounder, and the nation’s leading shot blocker.  He opened up a lot of things for everyone, but he was the only significant contributor lost from last season’s team.  The biggest reason for Marshall’s up and down season so far could be attributed to not handling success properly.

Marshall was in a position heading into this season that it hadn’t been in since the late-1980’s.  For the first time since the 1987-88 season, the Herd was heading into a season off the heels of a championship season and NCAA Tournament appearance.  It’s a completely different situation being the hunted rather than the hunter, and for the past 30 years or so, Marshall was the hunter.

That all changed heading into this season and as defending C-USA Tournament Champions and March Madness darlings, Marshall became the hunted in C-USA.  Last season’s success seems to have gone to the teams’ head at times this season, and it has cost the Herd. D’Antoni has pointed it out and the fans have taken notice to it several times throughout this season.

Now, instead of gaining a first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament like last season, Marshall will at best be the sixth seed and have to play four games in four days to repeat as C-USA Tournament Champions. The Herd, however, nearly pulled off that feat during the 2016-17 season by reaching the C-USA Tournament Championship game as a No. 6 seed before falling to Middle Tennessee.

Marshall’s collective team mind must be dialed in from this point on if the Herd hopes to get back to the NCAA Tournament.  A poor showing in bonus play could drop Marshall to the 10-seed in the C-USA Tournament.  Even with an overall disappointing season so far, the Herd has still shown it can be as good as any team in C-USA.

The Herd has a win over first-place Old Dominion and second-place Western Kentucky, so it is more than capable of beating anybody in C-USA.  However, Marshall has also proven it can lose to anyone in C-USA as well.  And thus, this inconsistency has led to an average overall record and C-USA record.

The proverbial switch must be flipped if Marshall wants to reach last season’s ultimate success.  Of course, there isn’t just one reason why this season has been a letdown so far.  But arguably the biggest reason has been the poor job the Herd has done in handling success and expectations.

However, Marshall can still be as dangerous as any team in C-USA, and that can’t be taken lightly heading into the C-USA Tournament where, even with a disappointing season, the Herd can still reach its goals.

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