HUNTINGTON — Marshall University defense isn’t new, just improved.
The Thundering Herd (7-8 overall, 1-1 Conference USA) enters Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. men’s basketball’s game at Middle Tennessee (4-11, 0-2) giving up 8.6 fewer points than it did last season. The reason isn’t the scheme but the players.
“That’s only because of Mike,” Marshall coach Danny D’Antoni joked, referring to his brother and Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, whose teams are noted for emphasizing offense over defense. “Mike’s killing me with his reputation. My teams have always been defensively oriented until I got here, then we weren’t built for it.”
This version of the Herd is different. With big bodies such as 6-foot-9, 299-pound sophomore Iran Bennett and 7-foot-, 230-pound freshman Goran Miladinovic inside, Marshall has given penetrating guards more of a challenge getting to the basket than in years past. The Herd is second in the nation in blocked shot, with 104, and 12th in steals, with 147.
Last season, Marshall finished fifth in steals and 13th in blocks, but gave up 80.5 points per game, compared to 71.9 this season. This season’s Herd ranks 114th of 353 teams in defense. Last season, Marshall was 244th.
“We’re doing the same things we did with our other teams, but we didn’t have the size,” D’Antoni said. “Even with (6-9, 220-pound Adjin) Penava, didn’t have what we have now. We did some good things with Penava, but he wasn’t a big body.”
D’Antoni’s guard-oriented defenses of the past five seasons weren’t as physically stout as this year’s. The steals and blocks were there, but they were results of taking chances more than byproducts of playing a sound base defense.
“We gave up some stuff because of that,” D’Antoni said of his defenses taking risks. “With this team, we have more size and we’ve added more length on the wings.”
The wings feature 6-5 sophomore Taevion Kinsey, 6-7 junior Darius George, 6-6 freshman Cam Brooks-Harris and 6-7 freshman Marko Sarenac, all of whom are lanky, lengthy and quick. They combine with Bennett and Miladinovic inside, and guards Jarrod west and Andrew Taylor outside, to allow D’Antoni more confidence in his defense and put less stress on the offense.
“You highlight your assets and try to hide your weaknesses,” D’Antoni said. We had a helter skelter, risk-taking defense in previous years because if we just locked in, it’s light a lightweight taking on a heavyweight, you’re going to get beat. You have to take chances. You give up things, but it kept us in and kept us competitive. Then, we worked hard on the offense and it took off.”