Football put Marshall on the map, giving the school national athletic prominence. Now men's basketball coach Greg White and his team are trying to show that the 13,000-student school in Huntington, W. Va., has a team worth watching during the winter too.
White, a former Thundering Herd point guard in his fourth season as coach, has guided Marshall (9-0 entering tonight's game against Central Michigan) to its best start since the 1973-74 season. The Herd is one of five undefeated NCAA Division I men's teams (Oklahoma State, Louisiana State, Syracuse and Stanford are the others, with Oklahoma State playing LSU tonight). Among Marshall's games are a 65-55 victory at Massachusetts and an 89-79 win over Georgia.
"We have done a good job recruiting and gotten some very good players," said White, who was an assistant to Georgia Coach Jim Harrick when Harrick was at UCLA. "The whole key is recruiting. If you get good players, it will take care of itself."
The best of those players might be center J.R. Van Hoose, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound sophomore from Paintsville, Ky. As a high school senior, Van Hoose was named Mr. Basketball in Kentucky and there was a furor because he was not heavily recruited by Kentucky. Van Hoose turned down Indiana and Kansas to go to Marshall, which is one hour from his home.
After surgery in late September to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Van Hoose has not practiced this season. But he is averaging 19 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
He is not the only Herd player to have caught the attention of NBA scouts, White said. Sophomore forward Tamar Slay, a 6-9, 200-pound former West Virginia Mr. Basketball, is averaging 21.4 points and shooting 54.6 percent, including 48.3 percent (32 of 67) from three-point range. (Slay isn't a complete shooter, though; he is making just 46.9 percent of his free throws).
Junior point guard Cornelius Jackson, a part-time starter at Tennessee as a freshman before transferring, averages 11.6 points and 6.9 assists. Marshall leads the nation in scoring (92 points per game).
"The win over Georgia was huge," Van Hoose said. "Playing [a Southeastern Conference] school in Huntington with a packed gym, it was one of those things where if things go right and you get a win, then people start recognizing your school."
It has been a rough season thus far for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's 11 teams. Entering last night's games, MEAC teams had a 9-76 combined nonconference record. Only four MEAC teams had won more than one game overall and none had won more than three.
But the MEAC's struggles are not that surprising. For financial guarantees, its teams often play road games against major-conference opponents. Of its nonconference games, 64 have been on the road, 13 at home, the remainder at neutral sites. One team, Norfolk State, has yet to play a home game.
"This is part of today's climate in college basketball--programs that are not financially able to sustain and fund on their own have to go out and pay the bills," Howard Coach Kirk Saulny said earlier this week, after his team lost at Louisiana State and before last night's game at Tulane, a 76-63 loss.
Howard (0-8) also has lost at No. 24 DePaul, No. 8 Michigan State and Georgetown, and plays at No. 13 North Carolina on Sunday. For their travels, Saulny said the Bison will receive more than $150,000 in guarantees from their opponents.
"You can't beat them unless you play them and they won't play you at your place," Saulny said. "The options get limited. That's just the reality we have to deal with."
However, the MEAC has had two significant victories this season, with North Carolina A&T winning at Texas A&M and South Carolina State winning at Clemson.
As soon as other students find out about Monmouth redshirt sophomore Rahsaan Johnson, they want to ask him what is was like to be teammates with Steve Francis two years ago at Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md.
"Every day somebody new finds out," said Johnson, a 1997 graduate of Gonzaga High School in the District. "He's the best player I've ever played with in my life. I might tell them a couple stories, that usually does it."
Now, though, Johnson is creating his own stories. In his first season at Monmouth, the shooting guard is leading the Hawks in scoring (17.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.6). Not bad for someone who spent the 1998-99 school year attending Montgomery-Rockville to get his two-year degree, but not playing there so he could have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Among other former area players faring well this season: redshirt freshman guard Donte Smith, The Post's All-Met player of the year in 1997-98 at Anacostia, has started six of 10 games and is averaging 7.3 points for California; former James Wood guard Michael Crawford is averaging 15 points and shooting 45.6 percent from three-point range for Rider; former Newport School guard Jamison Brewer is averaging 14 minutes and is second on the team with 3.5 assists per game for No. 4 Auburn; and former Gonzaga guard Alvin Brown, The Post's All-Met player of the year in 1996-97, is averaging 8.8 points for Xavier. Brown had nine points in a 66-64 victory over then-No. 1 Cincinnati on Dec. 18. . . .
Arkansas received a boost last week when swingman Joe Johnson enrolled in school after attaining the necessary score on the Scholastic Assessment Test to be eligible to play as a freshman. In his first game, the 6-8 Johnson had 16 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists in a 102-59 victory over Alcorn State.