Herd's Pittman ready for first taste of rivalry with WVU
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Elijah Pittman hasn't had the experience of playing in the Capital Classic, but does know the opposition pretty well. He also knows what a really good basketball atmosphere is all about.
Pittman, one of two junior-college transfers likely to start for Marshall tonight, hails from Covington, Ky., close enough to West Virginia. And if he didn't pay attention Cincinnati/Kansas State/WVU coach Bob Huggins growing up, he surely got to know the man during his initial recruiting process.
A few years later, Pittman is genuinely excited to play in front of Huggins, even as an opponent.
"I respect Bob. That's a big-time coach there," Pittman said. "I really like Bob. I'm also going out ready to kick their butts, too."
Which is the spirit of the annual Capital Classic, being played in December for the first time since 1996. The Thundering Herd battles the Mountaineers for the 41st time at 7:30 tonight, and is looking for its second win in three years.
Pittman and fellow juco import D.D. Scarver have yet to experience this rivalry, but have heard the tales from veteran teammates such as DeAndre Kane.
"It's a rivalry, both teams going at it, having fun," Kane said before MU's practice Tuesday. "Refs calling a hundred fouls, crowd going crazy. It should be fun."
As far as tonight's crowd, Pittman has a good frame of reference. In high school, he led Covington's Holmes High to the championship in Kentucky's fabled Sweet 16 tournament, an event that fills Lexington's Rupp Arena, so he knows about good neutral-floor crowds.
"I don't know if it will compare to Rupp, competing for a state championship. That crowd was amazing," he said.
Whether the Herd's quality of basketball will match tonight's emotion remains to be seen. Sporting a 5-3 record, this MU team has shown hints of meeting high expectations under third-year coach Tom Herrion, but also has been maddening at times.
After three-point wins over Morehead State and North Carolina-Wilmington, one of the goals tonight is very simple, as Pittman relates: "Just focus and make shots, that's it. Finish the ball, that's all we need to do."
The Herd has finished well enough to score 78.2 points per game, and enjoys its usual rebounding advantage (plus-6.9). Free-throw shooting (60.9 percent) is a bugaboo, again, with Pittman, Scarver and Dennis Tinnon the only players doing well there. Marshall shoots just 31.7 percent from 3-point range.
But the real agony has come at the rim. Kane and his teammates can find their way there, but have missed 24 layups or dunks in the last two games.
Marshall struggled against WVU in last year's game, losing 78-62. Kane scored 19 points, but Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant carried the Mountaineers to 61.5 percent shooting, blowing open a game tied at the half.
"We didn't do a good job closing out the first half," Herrion said. "We had a bad turnover and then Bryant hit a 3 at the buzzer to tie the game. We were OK for a while, but Jones took over the game, hit big shots and we played from behind."
WVU has a number of new faces such as Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray, rising regulars such as Gary Browne and that ever-present mountain man, Deniz Kilicli.
"They've got depth and balance. [Huggins] has got a lot of options, he's playing a lot of guys," Herrion said. "I think Gary Browne is one of the biggest ingredients for their success. I think he's an indispensable player. [Terry] Henderson has given them a good lift as a freshman, a wing scorer.
"And their defense is the anchor for [Huggins'] program."
That defense should be tougher than what the Herd saw last weekend from UNC-Wilmington. If Kane, Pittman and company find their way to the rim, the shots must fall, or the Herd will play from behind again.
Kane, stuck in a 13-of-52 slump over the last three games, isn't panicking. Then again, he has never lacked confidence.
"They'll fall, man," he said. "They'll fall."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.