Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 4/24/12
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The Non-BCS Watch List returns to Conference USA, which is home to the next two teams on the list.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Looking Back

When Donnie Jones bolted for Central Florida following a 24-win season in 2009-10, Marshall brought in Tom Herrion, who had previously served as Associate Head Coach at Pittsburgh and College of Charleston’s head man.  The Herd bought into his philosophy quickly and managed to sustain the success Jones had started to build, winning 22 games before losing in the first round of the CIT.

The route to those 22 victories was a bit of a roller coaster though.  The team lost to Chattanooga and James Madison in the non-conference but also scored a win over in-state rival West Virginia.  They got off to a 1-4 start in C-USA but won six of their final seven regular season games.

The Herd finished 86th in the final Pomeroy Ratings, and their 71st-rated offense was the biggest reason why.  More specifically, Marshall finished 14th nationally in free throw rate and 19th in offensive rebounding percentage.  Both of those made up for middle of the road stats in effective field goal and turnover percentages.  The defense ranked 129th and did a decent job limiting opponents’ shooting, which is a good thing for a team that struggled to force turnovers.

Herrion returns a number of key contributors, but he also lost a number of players.  Tirrell Baines and Johnny Thomas are the most notable departures.  Baines led the team in rebounding and finished third in scoring, while Thomas finished fourth in both categories.

This Year’s Herd

Marshall’s top three returning scorers are all guards, led by Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane.  Pitts led the team in scoring (16.2 ppg) and assists (4.7 apg), but he also missed the first nine games of the season after being rule academically ineligible.  His shooting percentages regressed from his sophomore season, but he still posted a terrific assist rate and drew nearly six fouls per 40 minutes.  The net result was a strong overall offensive rating, and a full year of Pitts at the point positions the Herd for a successful season.

Kane sat out the 2009-10 season as a partial qualifier, but he quickly made up for lost time, earning conference Freshman of the Year honors last year.  He scored in double figures 29 times en route to 15.1 points per game.  He also finished first on the team in steals, second in assists, and third in rebounding.  Kane had a high usage rate and took nearly 400 shots.  His 31.8 percent from three-point range could use some work, but despite his time beyond the arc, he still got to the line nearly 200 times.  Like Pitts, Kane drew six fouls per 40 minutes and posted a strong assist rate.  He does a nice job on the defensive glass as well, and if he can cut down on his turnovers and improve his outside shooting, Kane is a great breakout candidate.

The third backcourt returnee is Shaquille Johnson, who averaged just under 9.0 points per game and finished third on the team in assists.  Like his backcourt mates, Johnson posted a solid free throw rate and did a nice job of drawing fouls.  His 28.2 percent shooting from deep is a concern, as is a below average turnover rate.  Still, Johnson gives the team yet another experienced guard in the rotation.

Dago Pena and Nigel Spikes are the other returnees of note.  The 6-foot-6 Pena took 130 of his 180 shots from three-point range, converting on better than 41 percent of his triples.  Consequently, he didn’t get to the line much but is by far the team’s top returning sharpshooter.

At 6-foot-10, Spikes gives the team an injection of size down low.  Despite playing just over 20 minutes per game, he finished second on the team in rebounding with 5.9 per contest.  He also led the team in blocks and made 55.4 percent from the field, which is better than his conversion rate from the line where he hit just 50.5 percent.  Spikes recently underwent knee surgery and is expected to miss the early part of the season.  When he does return, you can expect him to contribute with rebounds and blocked shots, assuming he cuts back on his 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes.

There is no shortage of new faces on the Marshall roster, and a number of players are expected to contribute immediately.  Justin Coleman was a high-major recruit in the class of 2010, who originally committed toLouisville.  After failing to qualify academically, he came to Marshall where he sat out last season.  The 6-foot-5 swingman is an athletic scorer who should work his way into the starting lineup early on.

The other player I am most intrigued by is forward Dennis Tinnon.  Last season, he led all junior college players in rebounding with 13.4 per game to go with 23.1 points.  It’s hard to envision a scenario in which he isn’t the starting power forward.

A quartet of other new players provide more depth inside.  Robert Goff is another strong rebounder from the juco ranks who originally committed to Oklahoma.  Six-foot-nine big man J.P. Kambola sat out last season due to academic issues, but he gives the team another guy to rebound and block shots.  The Herd also has 7-foot-2 Marquette transfer Yous Mbao along with true freshman Jamir Hanner, whose length and versatility may earn him playing time early on.

Marshall also added a couple players to the backcourt mix.  Devince Boykins is a physical combo guard who can penetrate and score around the basket.  He also averaged a double-double as a high school senior.  Chris Martin also joins the team as a scoring guard.  Both guys are in a good situation to learn from the veterans already on the Marshall roster, which should put them in position to contribute in the future.

2011-12 Outlook

The Herd didn’t miss a beat in Herrion’s first season at the helm, and with a solid backcourt nucleus returning, there is reason for continued optimism heading into the 2011-12 campaign.  While there are a number of new players to work into the rotation, the good news is that the newcomers are talented enough to provide multiple lineup options.  In my eyes, the players most likely to make significant contributions are Coleman and Tinnon, so keep an eye on them in the early going.

Outside of their Conference USA schedule, Marshall has a number of challenging games on the schedule.  They have road trips to Cincinnati and Syracuse and later host West Virginia.  The Herd will also take on a couple teams I profiled earlier on, with a home-and-home series against Belmont and another home date with Iona.

Memphis is the clear favorite in the conference, and everyone else will likely be battling for second place.  That said, if some of the Herd’s newcomers can emerge in the frontcourt and gel with a deep and talented set of guards, Marshall could work their way into the at-large conversation.

**********

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.

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