In-state rivals meet in San Diego for a spot in the Sweet 16
Marshall will finally get a shot at in-state rival West Virginia on a much bigger stage than either team expected. The Thundering Herd won't be lacking for motivation against the Mountaineers when the two clash in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
Bad blood has been simmering between the two programs ever since West Virginia ended the annual series three years ago. Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins figured the risk outweighed the reward and saw no benefit playing Marshall.
That certainly isn't the case this time around. A Sweet 16 berth is at stake for the rivals. Marshall got to this point by upsetting 4-seed Wichita State 81-75 for the program's first NCAA Tournament win. West Virginia is trying to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years after taking down 12-seed Murray State 85-68.
West Virginia holds a 33-11 lead in the all-time series with Marshall. The Mountaineers have won five straight and nine of the last 10 against the Thundering Herd.
East Region: No. 13 Marshall Thundering Herd (25-10) vs. No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers (25-10)
Time: 9:40 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Viejas Arena (San Diego, Calif.)
Keys for Marshall
The Thundering Herd love to score in bunches and can do exactly that when their outside shot is falling. Marshall is averaging 26 3-point shot attempts per game in the postseason. Making it rain from the perimeter has been an effective strategy up to this point. The Thundering Herd are shooting a sizzling 40.4 percent from outside over the last four games. Making outside shots will be critical if Marshall wants to wear down West Virginia's press.
Jon Elmore has played on another level in the postseason. Elmore is averaging 23.8 points and is shooting 47.4 percent from the perimeter over his last four contests. He's also dishing out 7.5 assists per game in that stretch. But the junior guard definitely can't do it all by himself against the Mountaineers. Marshall will need to get Ajdin Penava and C.J. Burks to get in an early rhythm to pull some of the defensive focus off stopping Elmore.
Keys for West Virginia
Marshall is going to look to push the pace and pull the trigger early in the shot clock. West Virginia is at its best when it slows teams down and mucks up possessions. The Mountaineers need to pack the perimeter and put relentless pressure on the ball. West Virginia averages 8.1 steals per game and forced Murray State to commit 16 turnovers in the first round. It affected the Racers on offense, causing them to shoot just 41 percent from the field.
On the other end of the court, offensive balance is key for West Virginia. The Mountaineers have a ton of scoring options and, when all of them are on fire at the same time, it can make West Virginia's defense feel even more stifling. Four different players scored in double figures for the Mountaineers on Friday. They were 7-0 in Big 12 play this season when producing four double-digit scorers in a game.
Jevon Carter is a tone-setter on offense. Carter is an effective scorer and distributor. He leads West Virginia with 17.1 points and 6.7 assists, while committing only 2.7 turnovers per game. If Carter can have a big game, it will open the door for his teammates to do the same.
Marshall is hungry to make a statement against West Virginia. The Thundering Herd have been spurned by a rival who thinks they have nothing to gain from playing an in-state foe. The emotions should be high in this one. Marshall will keep it close and make it a tense 40 minutes for the Mountaineers. In the end, however, West Virginia has too much offensive balance and defensive tenacity for the Thundering Herd's underdog story to keep going for another chapter.
Prediction: West Virginia 78, Marshall 76
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.