The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 7, 2011

Marshall epitomizes wide-open conference

Herd faces Houston Wednesday in Texas

BECKLEY — The way Marshall coach Tom Herrion sees it, any of a handful of Conference USA teams has a shot at having its name announced six days from now on Selection Sunday.

He isn’t alone. Several of the league’s coaches feel the same.

The Thundering Herd’s road to a coveted spot in the field of 68 begins Wednesday at the C-USA tournament from UTEP’s Don Haskins Center. Marshall (21-10, 9-7) is seeded sixth and will take on No. 11 Houston at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time (5:30 p.m. Mountain).

Marshall is one of five league teams with at least 21 wins — the second consecutive season the Herd has reached the 20-win plateau. Of the four other teams, the Herd has beaten Memphis and Southern Miss, the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively.

Also, the Herd has beaten Tulsa, which is seeded second.

Memphis’ stranglehold on the league has been loosened, lending it to more depth and competitiveness. Marshall is among the most capable teams.

“The league is so vastly improved from top to bottom,” said Herrion. “We have a handful of teams that not only can get into the NCAA Tournament, but they are all capable of winning in the tournament.”

Many league coaches echoed those sentiments, including Houston coach James Dickey.

“There is so much balance in this league,” Dickey said. “There are a lot of great coaches and terrific talent. The teams are very well-balanced. So many teams are beating up on one another. The league leader (UAB) has four losses. It says a lot about the balance in the conference and is going to make a great Conference USA Championship.”

“The league is the best it’s been since realignment (in 2005-06),” Memphis’ Josh Pastner said. “It may be even better than before realignment with the amount of parity and competitive balance.

“It is unfortunate when the national media talk about how there may be only one NCAA Tournament team coming out of this league. It’s very disheartening.

“Conference USA should have three in the NCAA Tournament.”

Marshall could possibly raise its NCAA stock with a solid showing in the tournament, although a berth in the National Invitation Tournament is more likely. In fact, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reported that the website Chicagonow.com has Marshall projected as a No. 1 seed in the NIT.

That projection was based solely on computer rankings. A reporter for the website listed the Herd as a top seed among the most unlikely tournament scenarios.

As for Marshall’s first-round opponent, Houston (12-17, 4-12) dropped a 63-62 decision to the Herd back on Feb. 2. Aundra Williams’ layup with 11 seconds to go — his only points of the game — led the Herd to the win.

The Cougars have lost 11 of their last 12 games. That includes a current six-game slide in which the average margin of defeat has been 11.3 points per game.

Houston is led by 6-foot-9, 215-pound senior forward Maurice McNeil, who is averaging 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

Wednesday’s winner will take on tournament host and No. 3 seed UTEP at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday. All quarterfinal and semifinal games can be seen on CBS College Sports.

The championship game at 11:35 a.m. Eastern Saturday will be televised on CBS.

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