Saturday marks the biggest game of the season for the Marshall Thundering Herd as the Memphis Tigers come into the Cam Henderson Center.
The Herd still have a remote shot at winning the Conference USA regular season title and a home win against Memphis will certainly shake up the conference leader board.
The January 28th game in Memphis was close the entire way. Marshall has the talent and the ability, but it needs to put the pieces together in a big way if they want to come out of the Cam with their fourth straight win.
For fans of the Thundering Herd, this should be a no-brainer. Marshall currently sits at seventh in the nation in rebounds per game at 40 RPG whereas the Memphis Tigers average 34.6 RPG.
Marshall averages a +7.6 rebounding margin this season, but during the January 28th meeting the Tigers actually outrebounded the Herd by two, and held them to nine less rebounds than their season average.
Offensive rebounding rate is an important factor in deciding a game—so important that it is considered one of the Four Factors of Winning according to StatSheet.com:
Offensive Rebounding indicates a team's ability to get second chance shots, which dramatically improves efficiency. This is measured by offensive rebounding percentage (OR%). OR% = Offensive Rebounds / (Offensive Rebounds + Opponent Defensive Rebounds).
This is where Marshall shines versus the competition but where they also failed in their head-to-head matchup against the Tigers earlier in the season. When you lose the offensive rebounding edge, the second chance points will go as well—Memphis won that battle 16-15.
This discrepancy in rebounding can be chalked up to foul trouble on the Herd's part. Both Robert Goff and Dennis Tinnon suffered through foul trouble which limited their time on the court (26 and 20 minutes of playing time) and limited their number of opportunities to collect rebounds.
Keeping players like Goff and Tinnon (as well as DeAndre Kane who averages nearly six boards a game as a guard) on the court will be important in winning the rebounding battle.
The fact is Marshall is not a good shooting team. A base field goal percentage of 43.1 barely keeps the Herd in the top 200 of all Division I schools.
What's even more atrocious is the team's free throw percentage. A season average of 60.6% just screams missed opportunities. In all of NCAA Division I, Marshall ranks 331st in FT%. A better way of getting your head around that is to understand that there are only 12 schools in the entire country that shoot worse from the charity stripe.
During Wednesday's game against the Houston Cougars, Marshall managed to hit only 4-of-18 from the line (22%). That shooting performance was so awful that a rate of 60% would be looked at as a great game in comparison.
The 22-of-31 (71%) free throw performance against Memphis in the earlier meeting just seems like a work of utter fiction, but if the Herd wants to win on Saturday they are going to have to convert those opportunities at the line.
Something that is often observed but never seemingly reported on is the stagnant half-court sets that Marshall runs.
All too often the ball will be passed around, but there won't be any movement on the perimeter. This allows for opposing teams to drop into zone defenses that clog passing lanes to the interior. By doing this, it forces the Herd into either making bad passes inside (which lead to turnovers), shooting over the zone or a player like DeAndre Kane attempting dribble penetration late in the shot clock (which can also lead to steals and charge calls).
Against Houston, Marshall had a night-and-day type of game. In the first half the offense was stagnant and turnover prone.
Kane chalked up four turnovers and the team was held to only 21 points. Perimeter movement was nearly nonexistent, with all of the dribbling being done either by Kane or Damier Pitts and the interior passing lanes to Goff and Tinnon being choked off.
However, in the second half Marshall came out looking much more fluid with lots of great pick-and-roll action—which freed up both the ball handler and the screen setter for open shots, easy passes and clear driving lanes to the hoop.
If Marshall can run their offensive sets with the same efficiency that they exhibited in the second half against Houston, it will go a long way towards a big win. If their offense remains flat-footed, expect a lot of turnovers and bricks from the outside.
The fact is that on paper the two teams are not separated by much. The prior meeting could have easily gone in the Herd's favor if they were able to capitalize on their inherent rebounding advantage.
To win this time around, Marshall is going to have to play to their strengths (rebounding and second chance opportunities) and find some way to get past their weaknesses (leaving points at the free throw line and getting movement on the perimeter).
These last three games to close out the regular season are the difference between going into the Conference USA Tournament with an eye on the title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament, or stumbling into a potential early exit and massively disappointing end to the season.