HUNTINGTON - For Marshall University men's basketball players there couldn't be much sweeter than celebrating a Conference USA championship and playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 31 years.
However, for eight players on Marshall's roster, there is an added dimension to that title run and subsequent NCAA berth that makes the journey extra sweet. Those eight players are West Virginia natives who have represented their home state and put it in the national spotlight.
That sweet taste of achieving those NCAA goals is derived from a bitterness of the rhetoric that is spread about in-state players coming out of high school.
"Can't play, not athletic enough, aren't big enough, don't have what it takes to win - stuff like that," Marshall junior guard Jon Elmore from Charleston said with a grin on his face. "I know myself, Jarrod (West), C.J. (Burks) - everyone on the roster from West Virginia plays with a chip on their shoulder every game.
"When we beat out-of-state teams with all of these guys from the 'hoop states', it's memorable as heck because we are doing it with guys from here that we grew up with."
Elmore mentioned freshman Jarrod West because, like Elmore when he was coming out of high school, West was another player who had plenty of game, but there were questions of whether he could play at the NCAA Division I level because of his 5-foot-10 frame.
Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni didn't view West's size as a limitation; instead, he saw his passion, basketball IQ and poise as at point guard and offered him immediately.
West said the pride West Virginia-born players take in playing for Marshall is built from the home-state passion of the coaching staff, which features three prominent figures - D'Antoni from Mullens, assistant coach Mark Cline from Williamson and assistant coach Cornelius Jackson from Oak Hill - that hammer that emphasis home in recruiting.
"It means so much," said West, a freshman from Clarksburg. "It honestly means everything because coach Dan, coach Cline, coach Corny recruited me and that was all they talked about. They wanted to win the conference tournament, get in the NCAA tournament and win games and make a run with West Virginia guys - guys from inside the state who we know can play and have proven to be good players."
D'Antoni's pride in his home state is undeniable.
He literally wears the state of West Virginia on his chest on a T-shirt underneath his open suit jacket while roaming the sideline. While the T-shirt varies, there are two elements that remain constant: a logo that represents Marshall and the state of West Virginia.
Those aren't players who just fill out a roster either. They are players who have been integral in the team's success.
Marshall's entire starting backcourt is made up of West Virginia-born players that have produced at a high level.
Nationally, Elmore is eighth in points per game (22.8) and seventh in assists per game (6.9). Both those numbers led Conference USA.
Burks, a junior guard from Martinsburg, is averaging 20.5 points per game, which was third in C-USA and 36th nationally, giving Marshall the distinction of being the only team in the NCAA with two scorers in the top 40 nationally.
West started 33 of 34 games - the lone non-start being Senior Day - while averaging 7.9 points, leading the Herd in 3-point percentage (41.5 percent) and tying Elmore for the team lead in steals with 52.
D'Antoni said while it isn't just about the in-state players, it is a bonus to know the method he believed in is working for the betterment of the state and Marshall University.
"We have in-state players and we have adopted West Virginians," D'Antoni said. "Once you are here, you're a West Virginian. But, it is an especially proud aspect that families from West Virginia who pay the taxes and do the hard work inside our state, their sons are able to come and produce at a level that makes them proud nationally. I'm happy for them and I feel a little bit good knowing you can do it this way. It does work."
D'Antoni believes in the system because he has personal experience with its success. He and his brother Mike D'Antoni, also a former Herd standout and now head coach of the NBA Houston Rockets, were a by-product of the same philosophy.
"I go back to those two little kids in Mullens that got a chance here to do it on a national stage," D'Antoni said. "Basketball became a part of our lives and has been for the rest of our lives. It's worked out really well."