Herd steps into spotlight
LEXINGTON, Ky. — University of Kentucky men’s basketball is the all-time NCAA leader in victories.
Marshall’s Thundering Herd is responsible for 11 of UK’s total of 2,097 wins.
The Wildcats also own eight national championships and were the runner-up three times in their 52 trips to the NCAA tournament that include 15 appearances in the Final Four.
Marshall head coach Tom Herrion said he has great respect for all of that, but also welcomes the great challenge awaiting his team.
The Herd (7-5) and Wildcats (7-3) meet at 4 p.m., Saturday, in Rupp Arena. ESPN2 has the telecast.
Herrion’s first Marshall team played Louisville in the KFC Yum! Center and shocked the crowd of 21,262 with a one-point halftime lead before losing, 80-66, on Nov. 27, 2010. Herrion took the team to play No. 3 Syracuse last season and gained some respect from the 19,817 spectators in the Carrier Dome in a 62-56 defeat on Dec. 6, 2011.
“You need a lot of guys playing well,” Herrion said. “Making shots. Not doing things to beat yourself. ... turnovers, leaving points on the foul line, getting demoralized on the glass. You have to play your best. Play well defensively. Play strong and tough. You have to throw punches as well as take punches.
“When you go on the road you have to do everything better.”
Rupp Arena is one of the premier basketball venues in the nation with Kentucky fans packing the building regularly 23,000 strong to provide a tremendous home-court advantage. Kentucky has been the NCAA attendance leader for seven consecutive seasons and 16 times in the past 18 seasons.
And, the Wildcats win 88 percent of their games there.
A sell-out crowd is anticipated. UK’s web site reported Friday afternoon that no tickets were available in either the Lower Level ($55) or Upper Level ($47). Standing room only tickets in the Erupption Zone are available beginning at 2:30 p.m. at the Rupp Arena Box Office for $5 with a limit of one per person in line.
“You can get caught up in the atmosphere if you’re not careful,” said Marshall’s Tamron Manning from nearby Georgetown, Ky.
Elijah Pittman and Manning have played more games in Rupp Arena than they’ve played for Marshall in Cam Henderson Center.
Pittman, a forward from Covington, Ky., said he’s probably played 20 times in the home of the Wildcats. Manning estimated he’s played at least 10 games there.
Most of their Rupp Arena experience was as high school players in the Kentucky Sweet 16 state tournament.
Pittman won a state championship with Covington Holmes in 2009. Manning was on a state runner-up team last season at Scott County.
“I’m excited,” Manning said. “I’ve been thinking about it since the schedule came out.”
Pittman, a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer who joined the Herd this season, has fond memories of the downtown arena. His best memory is being showered with confetti after Holmes defeated Louisville Central for the 2009 state title.
He recalls the capacity crowd rooting for his team.
“It will be a big difference (Saturday),” he said. “But I block it out. I don’t listen to the fans.”
Marshall will be without All-Conference USA junior Dre Kane’s scoring (15.5 points per game) and play making from the point guard position Kane, who ranks second nationally in assists, has already missed two games and is out for an indefinite period because of a hand injury.
Junior guard D.D. Scarver (15.0), Pittman (14.3) and 6-8 senior forward Dennis Tinnon (10.8) are the Herd’s big guns. Tinnon and 6-10 senior center Nigel Spikes are listed in the top 60 players in the nation for rebounds with 9.2 and 8.7 a game respectively.
Taking care of the basketball duty falls to Manning and sophomore point guard Chris Martin for a team averaging 14.9 turnovers a game. Freshman Kelvin Amayo gained academic eligibility this week and could be used to help with the ball handling.
The Herd has struggled to make free throws at 59.2 percent for the season, but has been good when it mattered. In the final minute of games the percentage zooms to 75 percent (30 of 40).
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a 5-0 career record against Marshall, all of them during his C-USA years at Memphis.
“This (Marshall) is a good team, they’ve got great size and we’re going to have to play,” Calipari said. “I watched them against Cincinnati, gave Cincinnati a terrific game until about five minutes to go. It was a seven, eight point game and then all the sudden it broke open a little bit.
“They’re good enough to beat us.”
Kentucky regrouped after losing consecutive games at Notre Dame and against Baylor that knocked the Wildcats from The Associated Press Top 25. They’ve won their last three against Samford Portland and Lipscomb by an average of 33 points.
Calipari lost six NBA Draft picks after UK won its eighth NCAA championship in April and reloaded with a strong recruiting haul.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin leads the ‘Cats with 15.8 points a game followed by 6-7 freshman forward Alex Poythress (15.0), 6-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer (11.7) and 6-10 freshman Nerlens Noel (10.7). Noel averages 9.0 rebounds and has blocked 39 shots.
Goodwin and Poythress are the only freshman teammates in the nation averaging at least 15 points.
Noel recorded five or more blocks in each of the last three games. He also leads the team with 28 steals.
Wiltjer logged his first career double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds last weekend against Lipscomb.