HUNTINGTON — For nearly seven months now, Marshall sophomore forward Taevion Kinsey has replayed the CIT championship game in his head.
What Kinsey remembers most is the atmosphere of the Cam Henderson Center and how loud it got as the 2018-19 season wound down.
“I’ve been waiting for this since it ended last year,” Kinsey said. “I’ll never forget when we played in the CIT championship. I couldn’t hear myself the whole game — not just one play, but the whole game. It seemed like everything was muffled. I couldn’t hear myself think, breathe, none of it. The atmosphere was so great. Playing in front of these fans and how much they love us, it’s going to be crazy this year.”
Kinsey and his teammates get to rekindle that fire within the Henderson Center at 7 p.m. Thursday when they open the 2019-20 basketball season against Robert Morris.
When Marshall and Robert Morris meet on Thursday, it will be a battle of two teams who have plenty of experienced pieces returning to the fold from last season.
There is just one major difference, according to Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni.
“Their pieces are basically in place as they were last year,” D’Antoni said. “They’ve added some newcomers, but four pieces that started. They could be a little more ready with their rhythm of play than we are.”
Robert Morris is led by a pair of brothers who start at guard and return after seeing success in the 2018-19 season. Senior Josh Williams leads the returning group, having averaged 14.5 points per game in the balanced attack of the Colonials. Jon Williams, his brother, is a junior who headed the offense, scoring only 6.5 points, but facilitating with four assists per game.
Both are from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary — the former high school of LeBron James — and each have the ability to produce on the offensive end.
“They’re more guard-oriented and they have really good shooters from the outside,” D’Antoni said. “Their guards can shoot the 3-ball.”
Other key pieces returning for the Colonials include 6-8 forwards Charles Bain (10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds) and Yannis Mendy (5.7 points). Those four returnees give Robert Morris a continuity that returns from a team who went 18-17 overall and also advanced to the CIT, falling to Presbyterian.
“They won last year, so they come back with confidence,” D’Antoni said. “It should be a good game.”
For possibly the first time in the D’Antoni era, Marshall is going to go into a matchup with a size advantage on its opponent — something Kinsey said the team has to take advantage of.
“I was looking at the scout and their tallest guys are 6-8, so off the gate for me, we’re going to use our size advantage and utilize our big men,” Kinsey said.
How that rotation of big men — namely 6-10 sophomore Iran Bennett and 7-foot freshman Goran Miladinovic — is utilized remains to be seen.
D’Antoni used the Herd’s first two exhibition matchups to test out different combinations and see what works best among those on the floor. On Tuesday, D’Antoni joked that the exhibitions may have muddied the water a little further because the players all had moments in which they looked productive — a good problem to have, he said.
Still, his goal is to get down to a main rotation of nine players that provide skill and continuity to the lineup for the Herd staff to work with throughout the game.
For the first few games, that flow and lineup will be ever-changing as D’Antoni gets a feel for who can perform under pressure in regular-season matchups.
“I have no idea how good we can be or are right now,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve competed against ourselves, but until you put it on the floor against other people and we get to see it, you just don’t know. I think I like what I see and I hope that comes to fruition.”
Marshall returns several pieces with starting experience and extended playing time, including juniors Jarrod West, Jannson Williams, Mikel Beyers and Darius George, to go with Kinsey, the Herd’s sophomore playmaker who burst onto the scene late last season.
However, several pieces will take the court for the first time for D’Antoni, including redshirt freshmen Cam Brooks-Harris and Jeremy Dillon, along with newcomers Miladinovic and Marko Sarenac.
Especially in the case of those who sat out 2018-19, Kinsey said he spoke with them about expectations.
“I’ve been telling them that, yeah, we play in these exhibition games and it may be fun, but it’s the real deal now,” Kinsey said. “Are you going to step up to the challenge or are you going to fold? I know our guys won’t fold. They’re ready, and each day we bring more intensity. We believe in each other as a unit.”
Thursday’s contest starts a stretch in which the Herd has five of its first seven games at the Cam Henderson Center.