College Sports

A rare 1st for D'Antoni: Former Socastee coach, Marshall to dance in NCAA tournament

Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni and players celebrate their Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championship in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday. D’Antoni coached at Socastee High for 30 years.
Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni and players celebrate their Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championship in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday. D’Antoni coached at Socastee High for 30 years. AP Photo

There's not a lot of firsts in basketball Dan D'Antoni has yet to experience.

This week will be an exception.

"I’ve coached in a high school state championship game, I’ve coached an NBA Western Conference final game, I’ve coached an NBA All-Star game, I’ve coached now a conference [championship] NCAA game and now I’m getting to coach inside the NCAA [tournament]," the former longtime Socastee coach said Sunday after his current team, Marshall University, was announced as a No. 13 seed in the bracket.

"So there’s not a whole lot left. I’ve enjoyed all of it. I love basketball, so it’s been a great ride."

D'Antoni is in his fourth year coaching his collegiate alma mater, and the Thundering Herd defeated Western Kentucky 67-66 in the Conference USA title game on Saturday night to secure an NCAA berth. It was the second straight year D'Antoni led Marshall - this year seeded fourth - to the Conference USA title game despite not being a top-two seed.

This will be the Thundering Herd's first NCAA tournament bid since 1987, and they will take on fourth-seeded Wichita State in a first-round game at 1:30 p.m. Friday as part of the East Region.

"To break down doors, it’s always going to be tight," said D'Antoni, who previously coached several years as an NBA assistant under his brother, Mike, the current Houston Rockets head coach. "Then once you get through it, you get a feeling for it, your school or your teammates pass it on down to the next group of kids that come and you kind of a get a little swagger for it.

"This was important to try to maybe see if we can’t get that going and kind of understand what it takes to win a conference championship now and get into the NCAA tournament."

The Herd (24-10) will have their work cut out for them as they take on the Shockers, one of the nation's premier mid-majors year in and year out. There's some familiarity with Wichita State (25-7), D'Antoni said, as head coach Gregg Marshall is a former Thundering Herd assistant and Shockers assistant Donnie Jones is a former assistant and head coach at Marshall.

"Gregg has done a great job and they’re a high-powered mid-major and that’s where we want to go, and we’ve got a chance to see if we’ve gotten far enough to where we can be considered that or if we’ve still got more work to do," D'Antoni said. "So it’ll be a lot of fun and it should be an interesting game."

Dan D'Antoni in 2016 became nationally known for a rant about analytics - using computer-generated numbers to analyze the game of basketball - while speaking to a reporter. While the rant will probably often come up this week, D'Antoni calmly explained the premise Sunday.

"I just took some things that fit our style of play and that the computers agree. It’s there in the stats; you can’t argue with them. They evaluate all the shots that are taken in the NBA and when you run them through the computer they tell you where the best ones are and where they’re not," said D'Antoni, who coached Socastee for 30 years before joining his brother in the NBA. "So the best shot’s a layup so that it’s pretty uncontested. Foul shots are next, then your corner 3 and then any other 3, and your worst ones are your post-ups and your 2s.

"Unless you think the computer’s wrong, you’d think a coach would want to make plays that get you the best shots."

However, D'Antoni doesn't believe his team's style of play will necessarily give Marshall an advantage in a bracket where anything can happen.

"The team that usually wins plays whatever their style better than the other team plays their style," D'Antoni said. "To me, playing [our] way is just more entertaining. It’s a more fun game. It’s fun for the players. It’s fun for the fans. I know it’s a competition and you’re trying to win, but you’re also trying to make it a fun game and entertaining game for fans and players.

"So we do ours our way and it’s not always the perfect way. It’s really the team that plays their style the best. Hopefully we’re pretty well coached into what we do and the kids have bought in and they go out there and play at a high level."

The Thundering Herd are led by the high-scoring backcourt duo of Jon Elmore (22.8 points per game) and C.J. Burks (20.5) and forward Ajdin Penava, who averages 15.5 points per game and leads the nation at 4.1 blocks per game.

"We’ve got some weapons. The good thing about it is everybody on my team is capable of scoring," D'Antoni said. "You don’t have the big scoring droughts trying to find somebody who can score because we put out six or seven guys that can score."

While all the hoopla that is the NCAA tournament will be new for D'Antoni and his players, one thing will not change.

"Basketball is still basketball. When you finally get through all of it, it’s still a basketball game," D'Antoni said. "We’ll do the same prep that we always do, get ready, study our opponent, make sure that we can seize upon any weaknesses they have and use our strengths against them and go out there and play the game.

"When you get through all the uproar and everything, it’s still just stop them from putting it in and you putting [it] in [at] the other end."

While many along the Grand Strand will be rooting for teams like Clemson, North Carolina and Duke this week, there surely will be a large portion who will be cheering on the Thundering Herd this week.

"Myrtle Beach is always in my heart. I’ve got a bunch of great friends back there and there’s a lot of Marshall graduates down there," D'Antoni said. "There’s always a place of warmth with Myrtle Beach and the people there. I always carry them with me, and yes, they do call, and it’s always enjoyable talking to them."