HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - This isn't quite the Middle Tennessee team that knocked Marshall out of the National Invitation Tournament two years ago. Carrying an eight-game winning streak into this afternoon, the Blue Raiders might be better.
That's what the Thundering Herd faces when it takes the Cam Henderson Center floor against the Conference USA co-leaders at 2 p.m. today.
The two teams are different than they were when MTSU downed the Herd 86-78 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to varying extents. Wildly varying extents, as it turns out.
The only Marshall player on that March 13, 2012 stat sheet still around today is 7-foot-2 reserve Yous Mbao. The Blue Raiders have three players from that game, including Shawn Jones and Kerry Hammonds III.
You could build a team around those two, and the Raiders have done so. At 20-7, 10-2 in league play, they could build enough of a resume to sneak into an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament, if needed.
Jones, a 6-foot-8, 236-pound senior from Hialeah, Fla., is the league's only player to average 15 points, 8.5 rebounds and record more than 50 blocked shots (he has 53). The 6-5 Hammonds, the reigning C-USA player of the week, is averaging 12.8 points, hitting 40 percent from 3-point range and 81.6 percent at the foul line.
There are other weapons. Neiko Hunter, a 6-7 forward, averages 13.5 points, and Tweety Knight, younger brother of 2012 senior Marcos Knight, jams the stat sheet - 7.3 points, 4.85 assists and 2.2 steals per game. He is third in the league in steals and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.96).
Marshall coach Tom Herrion summed up the Blue Raiders in his straightforward style after his team lost Thursday night to Alabama-Birmingham: "The team that's playing the best basketball in Conference USA is coming in here Saturday afternoon."
Is the Herd (9-18, 3-9) playing the worst? Not with the Rice Owls lining the league cellar, but Marshall is giving itself a home-court disadvantage - its win last week at Charlotte was its second C-USA win on the road, but the Herd just 1-4 at the home. Only MU, Florida Atlantic and Old Dominion have more road wins than home wins.