Marshall’s upset of fourth-seeded Wichita State on Friday afternoon was one of the biggest surprises of the NCAA tournament’s first two days. And yet Marshall’s style of play and potential East Region matchups suggest that the 13th-seeded Thundering Herd might not be finished.
Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni is the older brother of Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, and has spent years as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Knicks. His NBA experience directly influences D’Antoni’s offensive strategy and game plan. As he told me last year, “If you’re not the most athletic team on the floor, then you need to have the most athletic ball — that ball needs to move fast and create opportunities for you, rather than the player creating the opportunity. It allows for someone who is not quite as athletic but is skilled and understands the game to play against anybody.”
D’Antoni also has a strict shot chart policy that should sound familiar to modern NBA fans: the only acceptable two-point field goal is a layup (which is why, per Hoop-Math.com, 28 percent of Marshall’s field goal attempts are in transition, where the Thundering Herd shoots 55 percent). And taking three-pointers — especially when those attempts come from the corner or above the break — is tantamount to success. The system works because D’Antoni has a team full of perimeter threats. Jarrod West connects on 41 percent from deep, and three other Marshall players make more than 36 percent from beyond the arc. Even Ajdin Penava, a 6-foot-9 forward, shoots a respectable 33 percent, which allows Marshall to constantly create offensive mismatches through spacing the half-court and creating driving lanes and kick outs to the perimeter, where there is almost guaranteed to be a waiting and effective three-point shooter.
In Friday’s 81-75 upset win, the Thundering Herd took only eight jump shots outside the paint; their other 52 attempts were either beyond the arc or at the rim, which enabled Marshall to score 1.12 points per possession, converting 40 percent from deep in the process.
“When you are on offense, you get to say go. And if you say go, and you don’t let [the opponent] know when and where you are going, you’ll always beat them,” D’Antoni has said.
The second aspect of the D’Antoni offensive philosophy is to create angles through the use of pick and rolls. The goal is to negate the opponent’s athleticism by making it extremely uncomfortable to defend, and junior guard Jon Elmore — who scored 27 points against the Shockers — is a master tactician, creating angles every time he touches the ball.
“You make straight line drives instead of rounding those drives off,” Elmore explained. “In our system, you never know where we are going to try and beat you, which gives us the advantage and allows us to attack more.”
Since Marshall connected on 36 percent of its three-point attempts this season, defenses have to respect the arc, continually inching closer to the perimeter. That then creates an opening — the first angle — to penetrate and either force a two-on-one, or kick to another player, starting the process again.
Only two teams (Northern Colorado and Mount St. Mary’s) have run more pick-and-roll possessions than the Thundering Herd. Per Synergy Sports, Marshall scored .89 points per those possessions, which ranks 34th in Division I, and those plays fuel the Marshall offense.
“We run at least one pick and roll every possession,” Elmore said. “We don’t have a set, though. All of our pick and rolls flow into each other. I’ll come off a screen and kick it to a guy in the corner, and then we have another pick and roll already in motion there. Our offense is constantly flowing.”
Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State team couldn’t handle that continuous action Friday: the Shockers allowed opponents to score .83 points per pick and roll, which ranked 279th nationally.
So what happens next? Marshall’s second-round opponent, West Virginia — while better than Wichita State at .76 points per pick and roll — has struggled containing dribble penetration and the sort of perimeter spacing caused by pick and rolls. Neither does West Virginia guard the three-point line very well; the Mountaineers allow teams to connect on 37 percent of their threes, and those same opponents have been able to get sufficient three-point attempts (38 percent 3FGA rate). Translation: West Virginia could be ripe for yet another upset.
And beyond that? Alabama would be an ideal Sweet 16 foe: the Crimson Tide aren’t any better at defending pick and roll possessions, allowing .77 points per possession, and they invite teams to take a high percentage of shots from three. But Marshall would more likely face No. 1 seed Villanova: the one team in the East region that perfectly matches up with the Herd. Jay Wright’s squad utilizes several small-ball lineups, each equipped to switch every action on the perimeter (.73 points per pick and roll, 110th in Division I), and the Wildcats have the requisite foot speed to stay with Elmore and the other Marshall guards and then help off and recover as the Herd attempt to create those angles.
Still, D’Antoni’s squad is well positioned to stay alive until next weekend. The Herd has the both talent — and the NBA-influenced game plan — to remain the ultimate Cinderella.