All of a sudden, the Conference USA title game is loaded with intrigue.
Heading into the tournament, this league was looking very much like Memphis and everyone else. With Marshall’s return to mediocrity during conference play and Southern Miss taking a nosedive late in the season, the only real challenger that the Tigers appeared to have was Central Florida; they took care of the Knights by 30 on Friday evening.
On the other hand, Marshall not only played their way into the tournament’s title game, they all of a sudden look like a team that may be able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid even if they lose to the Tigers on Saturday morning. The triple-overtime win over Tulsa on Thursday was thrilling, but it was the win over Southern Miss on Friday that really left its mark. The Thundering Herd saw their RPI shoot up into the low-40’s which, when combined with their performance in the non-conference, has the bubble speculators giving credence to the idea that a competitive loss may end up being enough.
That said, Marshall would be wise to take some advice from the boxing world: never leave it in the judge’s hands. There is an easy way to avoid sweating out Selection Sunday, and that is to win the automatic bid. Its easier said than done, considering Memphis is not only playing their best basketball of the season, they will be hosting the title game, but in a one game scenario, anything can happen.
And it just so happens that Marshall may have the pieces to pull of the upset.
Early in the season, defensive rebounding was a major issue for the Tigers. They’ve shored that aspect of their game up quite a bit, but its still not exactly a strength for Memphis. Offensive rebounding, however, is a strength for Marshall. They are sixth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and have a slew of bid, athletic bodies, headlined by one of the nation’s best rebounders in Dennis Tinnon. Tarik Black, Ferrakhon Hall and company are going to have to box out.
Marshall also has a pair of talent back court players. Damier Pitts has been terrific throughout his career at Marshall, while Deandre Kane has continued his ascent into CUSA stardom, making play after play as he went for 40 points in the win over Tulsa. Joe Jackson and Will Barton have been playing terrific basketball for the Tigers over the last month, but they certainly will have their hands full against Marshall.
The bottom-line is this: there may or may not be a bid on the line in this game, depending on how you view Marshall’s current bubble-standing. But a win for the Thundering Herd will undoubtedly make the teams currently on the cut-line sweat just that much more.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.