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Herd's new season opens with Ball State

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

In the marathon that is a college basketball season, Marshall has the final leg of the race in front of it.

The Thundering Herd now has a three-game sprint in the Mid-American Conference Tournament in hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.

The first is at 9 p.m. tonight at the Gund Arena in Cleveland, where No. 3-seed Marshall (18-8) takes on No. 6 Ball State (17-11) in the MAC quarterfinals.

Although the Herd got a first-round bye for having the best MAC record aside of the two divisional champions, the pressure isn't alleviated much at all, coach Greg White said.

"We've never been in that position before," he said. "We've always started at the bottom, and we climbed up."

Even more, Marshall believes it could have been the regular-season champion instead of Central Michigan if things had gone as planned.

The loss of guard Travis Young to injury hampered early-season momentum. After starting 8-1, the Herd went 3-5 in a stretch of almost a month. White estimates Marshall would be 21-5 with a healthy Young during that span.

"The seeding could have been a lot different with a bounce here and a bounce there," forward J.R. VanHoose said.

But Marshall isn't crying the blues. In fact, with the MAC Tournament now in session and only one guaranteed spot into the NCAA Tournament, a new season begins tonight and ends Saturday with the MAC title game, White said.

"Your team's like a wheel with 13 spokes in it," he said. "When you lose a spoke, you're not very good. When we lost Travis, we lost a great deal of momentum. But the regular season doesn't mean anything. You hate to say that, but to get to the NCAA Tournament, you're looking at three days."

Of course, Marshall was able to get solid performances with Young out. Joda Burgess supplied 3-point pop off the bench, and VanHoose and Tamar Slay have been leaders all season.

Slay leads the Herd with 17.3 points per game, and VanHoose averages a double-double.

And one thing that could help Marshall in the latter stages of the season is its success against top teams in the early part.

The Herd walked into Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center for their second game and almost upset the No. 16 Bearcats, ultimately losing by four in the final 30 seconds.

Eleven days later, the upset came, on the court of the Dayton Flyers, who were ranked No. 24 at the time.

"You hope (those early games can help)," White said. "But every game's so different in a tournament. Every game is do or die."

Especially when it comes to NCAA Tournament hopes. Only one MAC team danced last year after having two appear in 1998 and 1999, and White said it's likely only one team will go again. But he's keeping his hopes up.

Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at sports@exponent-telegram.com.

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