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Herd has high hopes as hoops season begins tonight

HUNTINGTON - After his team played the best and most entertaining basketball Marshall fans had seen in a generation-plus, Tom Herrion isn't looking for a sequel.

He wants more, much more. And he thinks he, his staff and his players have set the foundation for bigger and better things, like the Thundering Herd's first NCAA tournament bid in 26 long seasons.

There's a newfound confidence surrounding the program. Or is it really that new?

"I'd like to think my teams have played with confidence since I've been here," said Herrion, entering his third season in Huntington. "I think the infrastructure has been in place now for two years, so it allows us to have a better understanding of how, program-wise, we do things, whether on the floor, basketball-wise, or on the court, academically.

"All of that's ultimately going to help lead you to success, more success."

The quest for that success begins tonight at Cam Henderson Center, as the Herd opens its 100th season of basketball against Longwood University of Farmville, Va. Tipoff time is 7:30 p.m.

Marshall is coming off a 21-14 season and its first National Invitation Tournament bid since 1988. The Herd played in its first Conference USA tournament final and the first final of any tournament since 1997. It also won five games over NCAA tournament teams, including Sweet 16 Cincinnati, and put a decent scare into then-No. 3 Syracuse.

But a 9-7 conference record proved to be the Herd's undoing, as far as NCAA hopes went. As for the NIT, the team was shocked at being sent on the road for the first round, immediately after getting home from the C-USA tournament no less, and fell to a rested and angry Middle Tennessee team.

So yes, this Marshall team wants a lot more.

It is playing perhaps an even more ambitious schedule, including big names Villanova, Cincinnati and defending national champion Kentucky. Other teams are sneaky good, including South Dakota State, Nevada and Ohio, another Sweet 16 team. And then there are Memphis and the other Conference USA teams.

But tonight, the focus is on Longwood, and on Herrion's task of weaving excited newcomers in with older players.

Two of the newbies, D.D. Scarver and Elijah Pittman, should be impact players and maybe then some. But don't be fooled by one thing: They'll be every bit as giddy as freshman Tamron Manning to make their Division I debut.

"I've been wanting this since senior year out of high school, a long time," Pittman said. "That's why my palms get sweaty, but I'm ready. It's going to feel great, this is going to be my first college game in a D-I uniform. It's a big difference."

Unless a favorable NCAA ruling falls out of the sky in the waning hours before tip time, the Herd will miss point guard Kareem Canty, whose freshman eligibility is in question. And there is the question of 2011-12 leading scorer DeAndre Kane and big man Nigel Spikes, who were held out of the Herd's exhibition last week for unspecified reasons.

Don't expect Herrion to tip his hand on their status, but he says big man Robert Goff is a full go.

The visiting Lancers were 10-21 in their sixth and final season as a Division I independent. As they enter the Big South Conference, 10th-year coach Mike Gillian has had to bring in a horde of newcomers. Only Tristan Carey, a 6-foot-4 guard who once played at La Salle, is a returning starter.

That presents difficulties, but at least the Lancers don't have to comb the country to build a schedule anymore.

"I know Mike Gillian really well," Herrion said. "I think they've got new life in that program [by entering the Big South]. Now they have a more realistic hope, as the season unfolds, of playing for something.

"They've got quickness. They've got a wing player, No. 12 [Carey], can really score. They've got some talented young players, I know his teams play really, really hard, great energy. So there will be some challenges that lie within that game - our first true night, a little bit of energy by our kids.

"We'll have to calm down a little bit."

And play better defense, particularly in transition. And shoot better, especially at the free-throw line. And build some chemistry.

The latter might not be so challenging, to hear Pittman and others tell it.

"Chemistry, that's the reason I'm here," Pittman said. "I would never have signed here if I didn't feel at home. I felt player and guys that we can connect, be one and have one mission, one dream."

For the Thundering Herd, the pursuit of that dream starts tonight.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.


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