HUNTINGTON — Recruiting undersized, overlooked players from the 304 area code isn't difficult for Dan D'Antoni.
He was one of them once and knows what makes them tick, their likes and dislikes and whether they can play basketball.
"I encourage all West Virginia (high school) coaches to coach 'em up because I want the West Virginia kids to be the best I can find, period," the Marshall University men's basketball head coach said. "They're here. I was not recruited. I had one scholarship (offer); that was to Marshall. I thought I was good enough to play somewhere else, but I ended up decent. I could have probably played a lot of places."
D'Antoni took his only offer, left Mullens, West Virginia, to play point guard for the Thundering Herd from 1966 to 1969, scored 1,109 points in his career and was enshrined in the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990.
His belief in Mountain State players was proven by having eight of them on this year's squad that went further than any other team in Herd history. Two of his assistant coaches, Mark Cline and Cornelius Jackson, are West Virginians, from Williamson and Oak Hill, respectively, and MU men's basketball director of operations Neal Scaggs is from Logan.
Marshall defeated Western Kentucky University (67-66) to win the Conference USA championship in Frisco, Texas, and was part of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 31 years. Marshall, a No. 13 seed in the NCAA East Regional playing in San Diego, upset fourth-seeded Wichita State University (81-75) in the first round — the Herd's first NCAA triumph after five winless appearances in the Big Dance.
A 25-11 season ended with a loss against fifth-seeded West Virginia University (94-71) in the NCAA second round that put the Mountaineers into the Sweet 16.
For his part in guiding the Marshall program to unprecedented heights, members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association selected D'Antoni to receive the Furfari Award as the state's College Coach of the Year.
D'Antoni will receive the award Sunday, May 6, at the 72nd Victory Awards Dinner at the Embassy Suites hotel in Charleston. The award honors the late Mickey Furfari, a state sportswriter for eight decades who died July 11, 2016, in Morgantown, at age 92.
University of Charleston men's soccer head coach Dan Stratford (NCAA Division II champions) was second in the voting, followed by Glenville University women's basketball head coach Kim Stephens (Mountain East Conference champions). West Virginia University men's basketball head coach Bob Huggins (NCAA Sweet 16) finished fourth.
Repping the 304
D'Antoni, 70, said he'll always recruit West Virginians.
"I think that's the way college basketball ought to be," he said. "You are representing your state, and if you're not looking at your state first, that's a mistake. I think I can find kids that I can coach up if they're willing to be coached, and we look for coachable kids.
"I think I can get 'em to a level that they can compete with anybody."
C-USA scoring king Jon Elmore (22.7 per game) and C.J. Burks (20.1), a pair of junior guards from Charleston and Martinsburg, respectively, were the first Marshall teammates with 20-point averages in 60 years, while freshman guard Jarrod West, from Clarksburg, and junior guard Rondale Watson, from Lewisburg, contributed at both ends of the court.
So, Marshall's most successful team in decades was West Virginia-strong, but not entirely made up of 304 area code players.
Ajdin Penava, a 6-foot-10 junior from Bosnia, scored in double figures (15.6) and led the nation with 134 blocked shots. And freshman forwards Jannson Williams (Newnan, Georgia) and Darius George (Staunton, Virginia) came on strong during the postseason run.
D'Antoni likes to talk about going for a car ride. He says it's enjoyable if you have good people along for the ride, and you don't want it to end.
"I told them (the players) at the beginning, the goal is to win the NCAA Tournament," he said. "Whenever we get in the car driving down the road to that championship, when it stops we'll all get off and we'll be happy because we like who is in the car. We like the journey we're on. We're looking forward to the next leg."
Marshall was one of the NCAA Tournament's Cinderella stories this year with a lot of media attention given to D'Antoni's analytical approach to the game, the Herd's fast-paced style of offense, D'Antoni's sideline attire and the NCAA-orchestrated game with the WVU Mountaineers.
D'Antoni believes a 3-pointer from the corner is the best shot and any other 3-pointer is next-best — and he cites statistics to back that up.
Marshall doesn't work to get the ball to a guarded player in the low post, which D'Antoni said is the worst shot to take, although he might tweak his strategy next season when 6-10 heavyweights Iran Bennett and Levi Cook become eligible. Instead, Marshall plays basically the same way as the NBA Houston Rockets, coached by Dan D'Antoni's 66-year-old brother, former Herd point guard Mike D'Antoni.
The Herd puts five players on the court who can pass and shoot, spreads the floor and lets them do their thing from anywhere, including the 3-point line. Nearly half of Marshall's shots in the 2017-18 season were 3-point attempts. Marshall was 10th nationally with 83.8 points per game and also averaged making 10.1 of its 3-point shots.
Elmore and other Marshall players say it's the most fun style of play in the nation.
D'Antoni's blazer and T-shirt combination on the sideline got a lot of TV air time, and the nation was introduced to his colorful personality.
"He is a character," Burks said. "He's a great guy, on and off the court. There's no filter on him, so everything you see is the real Dan. On and off the court he jokes around; going into the game he jokes around. But when it's time to be serious, he's serious."
The Herd and Mountaineers met on the court for the first time since WVU ended the series after a game in December 2015. Marshall wants to play WVU, but wants it on a level playing field, D'Antoni said. Alternating games home, away and neutral, but no two-for-ones or three-for-ones.
"We're a (NCAA) Division I school," he said. "You gotta treat us like one."