HUNTINGTON — Help is on the way, but it's coming for next season.
So, until 6-foot-10, 330-pound Iran Bennett and 6-10, 270-pound Levi Cook become academically eligible in 2018-19, the Marshall Thundering Herd men's basketball team will have trouble defending teams with strong inside players. Ajdin Penava, a 6-9 junior, is a strong low post defender who leads the nation in blocked shots, but he can't do it alone.
Besides, Penava is sidelined because of an ankle sprain. The Bosnian probably won't play in a Thursday game at Charlotte, but might be ready for some action Saturday at Old Dominion.
Herd guards Rondale Watson and Jarrod West both think they can do more to help.
"Our job is to go in there and make them pick up their dribble and make them feel uncomfortable
MARSHALL (11-5, 2-1) AT CHARLOTTE (5-9, 1-2)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Halton Arena, Charlotte, N.C.
RADIO: WDGG 93.7-FM, ESPN 94.1-FM and 930-AM
down in the paint," said Watson, a 6-4 junior.
Marshall, 11-5 overall and 2-1 in Conference USA, plays a 7 p.m. Thursday road game against the Charlotte 49ers (5-9, 1-2) in Halton Arena. Live streaming is on ESPN3.com.
Penava leads the NCAA in blocked shots with 76 and blocks per game with 4.75. He rejected five Western Kentucky University field goal attempts in the first 3:30 of Saturday's game before getting hurt. Penava left the court with 16:26 to go in the first half and didn't return. The Hilltoppers (11-5, 3-0) rolled to a 112-87 victory.
During his absence WKU took it to Marshall inside where the Herd basically had only 6-8, 206-pound freshman Jannson Williams and 6-9, 255-pound senior Milan Mijovic guarding the basket.
"Ajdin, Milan, Jannson, whoever is in there we've got to help them," said the 5-11 West, a freshman. "Anytime a big (player) puts the ball on the floor if we can get the steal maybe with a quick double team that would help a lot more. We just all have to be connected and locked in."
Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni doesn't want to rush Penava back, but said he will be playing next week in home games against Middle Tennessee and UAB on Jan. 18 and 20 respectively. D'Antoni said he wants Penava to have full strength and explosiveness in the ankle before getting on the court.
C-USA scoring and assists leader Jon Elmore, a 6-3 junior point guard for the Herd, averages 23.2 points and 7.5 assists. C.J. Burks, a 6-4 junior guard, is next with 20.1 points per game, giving Marshall one of the nation's top scoring tandems.
Penava scores 16.7 a game and collects 9.1 rebounds. Watson and West are next on Marshall's scoring list with 11.2 and 10.9 points respectively.
Watson is a Wake Forest University transfer who became eligible at semester break and provided double-figure scoring in his first three games before tailing off to eight and six the last two times out.
"Sometimes I become lackadaisical and don't come out with the right focus," he said. "My coaches have told me to be aggressive and bring energy."
Charlotte will feed its post players some, but its primary scorers are 6-3 junior guards Andrien White (14.4) and Jon Davis (12.6). Davis has 1,150 career points. Forward Najee Garvin (6-7 sophomore) averages 8.6 points, guard Austin Ajukwa (6-7 senior) adds 7.0 per game and 6-9 freshman Milos Supica is next with 6.9.
Juco import Jailan Haslem (6-10, 260 pounds) has started 13 of 14 games and averages 4.2 points.
Charlotte lost at Old Dominion (89-58); won at North Texas (70-68) on Supica's offensive rebound and layup in the final second; and lost at Rice (73-64).
The 49ers made a Dec. 14 coaching change, firing Mark Price and replacing him with former assistant Houston Fancher as an interim head coach. They are 2-3 since the switch.