HUNTINGTON - Like every one of his peers in America, Marshall basketball coach Tom Herrion will tell you that preseason predictions aren't worth the paper (or Internet space) they're printed on.
But boy, it's a lot more fun for the Thundering Herd to be where it is, than where it was not so long ago. Remember, the Herd was picked in the basement by league coaches in its first Conference USA season of 2005-06. (Yes, coaches dared to vote on preseason rankings once upon a time.)
As the picks by Athlon, Lindy's and others are trickling out, the Herd is being pegged second behind Memphis by most, and maybe no worse than third by the rest. With top-scorer DeAndre Kane back for his junior year and monster rebounder Dennis Tinnon cleared by the NCAA, the respect is growing.
"Being picked high means you have a chance," Herrion said Thursday at the Herd's media day. "When you're picked low - we're all optimistic at this time of year - that doesn't transcend very well. It's great, it's great. It's wonderful for our fans to be excited even more.
"We're happy that people recognize and respect our program and what we've done in a short period of time."
Coming off a 21-14 season and its first National Invitation Tournament berth since 1988, MU makes its public debut tonight in its annual Thundering Herd Madness.
All seats are $5 general admission, and the gates will swing open much earlier than usual. That's because Marshall's volleyball team takes on Rice at 5:30 p.m., with Madness tickets honored. Admission is free for MU students with valid ID.
There will be the usual methods to tonight's Madness, including a two-ball competition, a dunk contest and an intrasquad scrimmage. There will be prizes, and fans can get autographs on the floor afterward.
This time around, the Herd will have more returnees than newcomers, which often has not been the case in recent years. DeVince Boykins, a 2011-12 redshirt, is one nine players back.
Newcomers include two players from Texas junior colleges - 6-foot-4 swingman D.D. Scarver and 6-9 forward Elijah Pittman. Prep newcomers are 6-4 guard Tamron Manning and 6-1 point guard Kareem Canty, with 6-4 guard Austin Loop joining as a walk-on. George Washington High grad TyQuane Goard, sitting out as a transfer from Ohio, will appear.
Herrion announced Thursday that Tinnon, Kane and Nigel Spikes were elected captains by their teammates. All carry interesting career paths.
Spikes is a forgotten big man of sorts, averaging 4.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 16.7 minutes last season. His overriding problem was a knee injury, which he never completely tamed. He is now 100 percent, listed at a solid-looking 6-10, 240.
"I think a healthy Nigel Spikes is as big a difference-maker on our team as anybody else," Herrion said. "That's not disrespect to the significance of anybody else. I have to remind people that when we lost to Ohio in that tournament [2011 CollegeInsider.com], he had 20 rebounds. He had a great sophomore year."
Herrion has the option to experiment with three-big packages, with Tinnon playing at a small forward - if you really want to call one of the nation's toughest rebounders a "three."
"There should be no way anybody else would get a rebound," Tinnon said. "I'm a great rebounder, Nigel's a great rebounder and so is Goff. Whichever way that ball goes, somebody should get it, one of us."
Tinnon averaged 10.2 points and was a single board short of an even 10.0 rebounds per game last season after arriving from the Kansas juco circuit. He compiled those numbers while averaging just 29.3 minutes.
After sweating out an NCAA eligibility case, he showed even more enthusiasm than usual at Thursday's media day. As Herrion notes, Tinnon never slowed down while his case was in limbo.
"He could have shut it down, understandably at times," Herrion said. "But he just went all out and he had a great summer."
Kane, now wearing No. 50 in honor of his late father, averaged 16.5 points last season, the most by an MU player since Ronald Blackshear (19.6) and Tamar Slay (18.9) in 2001-02. His career point total of 1,073 is the second-most entering this season by a Division I junior.
His 40-point game against Tulsa in last season's C-USA tournament showed he can carry the Herd if the need arises. Herrion has seen just how far Kane's leadership abilities have come.
"You forget I've seen it since we kicked him out of camp at Pitt, when he was in high school," said Herrion, then a Panthers assistant. "He's come so far, yet he has so far to go. He's made great strides in a lot of areas in his life, academically. I think it amazes some people that have direct knowledge of where he was at the day he stepped on this campus, to where we have him now, and leaning toward graduation.
"As a player, he has to get better at controlling his emotions, channeling and funneling. Again, some of our best qualities are our worst qualities. The thing that makes him good are his competitiveness, his toughness, but he has to continue to harbor, channel his emotions to his benefit.
"And if you've seen him, he's in the best shape of his life. He's worked harder than he ever has on his weaknesses, and I think he's primed to have an outstanding junior season."
Those captains are major reasons the Herd is catching on with national analysts. Tonight, fans will get their first glimpse.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
Where they're picking Marshall and the rest of Conference USA for the 2012-13 basketball season:
3. Central Florida
4. Texas-El Paso
5. Southern Mississippi