CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Marshall returns to the scene of one of its most epic beatdowns ever, it will face some of the same elements tonight against Southern Mississippi.
But there is one difference: With Memphis moved out of Conference USA, the Eagles (19-3, 6-1) are legitimate contenders for the league title - or an at-large NCAA tournament berth if they falter. Winners of 10 of their last 11, they're now a half-game behind Texas-El Paso for C-USA's top spot.
The Thundering Herd (8-15, 2-6) will try to throw a speed bump in that title run tonight at Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg, Miss. Tipoff time is a late 9:30 p.m., with the game airing on CBS Sports Network.
"They're the most experienced team in the conference," Marshall coach Tom Herrion said Thursday as the team was ready to board a plane out of Charleston. "Their four leading scorers are all seniors, the next two scorers are fourth-year transfers. Very experienced team, very balanced, playing at a high level.
"It's a terrific challenge for us, but one our kids are excited about."
The Eagles are led again by Neil Watson, a second-team all-conference pick two seasons ago. The 5-foot-11 point guard averages 12.2 points and 3.9 assists, shoots nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and shoots a league-high 94.6 percent from the foul line.
Six-foot-5 Michael Craig and 6-7 Daveon Boardingham both average 11-plus points and shoot 57.6 percent from the floor. Craig leads the team in rebounds (8.0 per game) and Boardingham leads in free-throw tries (120, shot at a 70 percent clip). Six-foot Jerrold Brooks averages 9.6 points and is second on the team in assists with 2.7 per game.
Aaron Brown (6-5, 8.8 points) and 6-7 Jeremiah Eason (5.6) are the fourth-year transfers, Brown from Temple and Eason a junior-college import from College of Central Florida (located in Ocala, if you're wondering).
Tonight's contest begins a tough three-game road stretch for the Herd. Herrion's team wants to win tonight, but it wouldn't be bad to avoid repeating last year's 102-46 meltdown at Hattiesburg. Falling behind 47-7 in that one, the Herd went on to suffer its worst-ever defeat in a Conference USA game, or any league game in any conference for that matter.
Then again, the Herd avenged that with an 88-84 win in Huntington, damaging the Eagles' NCAA tournament hopes.
From Hattiesburg, the Herd buses to New Orleans for a 2 p.m. game Sunday against Tulane. A Feb. 15 game at Charlotte follows, with the Herd back at Cam Henderson Center on Feb. 20 against Alabama-Birmingham.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.