Nov. 2, 2016
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Dan D'Antoni is sure to draw a thick, black line between goals and predictions. Don't confuse the two.
"Our goal, as always, is to win the NCAA title," he said. "I would imagine every Division I school should have that same goal. How far that ride or journey takes us is always up for grabs no matter how good you are or how bad you are."
The Marshall men's basketball team, which opens the two-game exhibition portion of its schedule Thursday night against Division II West Virginia State, hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1987. But in the six seasons of this decade, from 2010 through last season, 187 Division I men's hoops teams have earned a berth to the NCAA tournament, either through an automatic bid by winning their conference tournament or an at-large invitation from the selection committee.
Marshall finished 17-16 last season, but rallied to place third in Conference USA and fell two tournament wins shy of an automatic NCAA tournament bid. This season, the Herd is predicted to finish fourth in C-USA.
"Ws and Ls I'll never guarantee," D'Antoni said. "You never know. There's a lot of things involved with that, some within our control and some outside of our control. I think we can guarantee an exciting season. Practice has shown the ball is more fast-paced; we'll attack the basket at a faster pace. I guarantee and feel confident that these kids will play together.
"They'll give you, Marshall, the state, Huntington the best they have in them."
Marshall's seniors - forward Ryan Taylor and guards Stevie Browning and Austin Loop - haven't been bashful about the Herd's prospects for 2016-17. That trio represents three of the team's top five scorers from last season. MU also has junior guard Jon Elmore, who averaged 15.2 points in 25 starts, returning in the backcourt. Overall, Marshall has six of its top seven scorers back.
So, what's stopping this Herd hoops team from invading March's big bracket?
"Honestly, I think this team can go down as one of the best teams to play at Marshall University," Taylor said. "We have a little bit of everything."
Marshall has ample offense, as it proved last season. The Herd led Conference USA in scoring and attempted and made more 3-pointers than any C-USA team last season. Marshall finished fourth nationally in scoring at 86.0 points per game.
Now, D'Antoni said, the defense has been his focus this preseason. Fans will get a look at the refined offense and improving defense twice in four days with the exhibition games against Mountain East Conference members West Virginia State (Thursday at 6 p.m.) and the University of Charleston (Sunday at 2 p.m.).
"My whole reason for coming back was to give Marshall and the people I once knew here a chance to see this program at its highest level," D'Antoni said. "We may. We may not. If not, we'll be a step closer (this season)."
D'Antoni, as one can see in his words, isn't forecasting his 3-slingin' gang will be getting fitted for glass sneakers this March. The idea of a fairytale season, though, isn't something he wants to subdue.
Dream about it. Go for it. Enjoy the journey - no matter the result.
"I'd like to win the conference and get a ring," Loop said of the possibility of winning the Conference USA title. "I never got a ring in high school or anything. I'd really like to get a ring and go to the Big Dance one time, my last time."