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D’Antoni pulls an old trick from his sleeve

December 31, 2017

Remember “small ball”?

Remember the strategy of playing four guards and only one big man that led Marshall to a late-season surge in 2016-17?

Remember how Marshall rode “small ball” all the way to a berth in the 2017 Conference USA Tournament championship game against Middle Tennessee?

Well, it’s back.

When Louisiana Tech went on an 8-0 run against Marshall during the first half Saturday night in the Henderson Center, that’s the trick Herd coach Danny D’Antoni pulled out of the cuff of his long-sleeve T-shirt.

And it worked ... again.

The “small ball” strategy was the catalyst for an impressive 78-65 win over Louisiana Tech.

With a lineup of 6-foot-3 guard Jon Elmore, 6-4 guard C.J. Burks, 5-11 guard Jarrod West, 6-4 guard Rondale Watson and either 6-9 Ajdin Penava or 6-9 Jannson Williams on the floor, suddenly LA Tech had matchup problems on both ends of the floor.

“When I went to it in the first half,” said D’Antoni, “I felt like we had to have it.”

He was right.

The proof was the Bulldogs shooting just 2 for 11 from the floor and missing eight consecutive field goal attempts. It also is why Louisiana Tech went 4:54 with no field goals.

As a direct result of the strategy, Marshall took a 36-31 lead into halftime. Welcome back, “small ball.”

“It did come back tonight,” said point guard Jon Elmore. “I think we made a great run with that lineup. Everybody is a great defender. We really pick up the speed on defense. We get after it. Everybody takes it personally. I think we play well when we go to that.”

That’s why the Herd stuck with “small ball” to open the second half.

This time 6-9 Milan Mijovic joined Elmore, Burks, West and Watson in the alignment. But the results? They were the same.

At one point, Louisiana Tech made only one of nine field goal attempts, including missing their last six in a row. The Bulldogs also committed three turnovers in a span of 2:56 as they struggled with the defensive matchups.

In fact, LA Tech went a span of 4:03 without scoring.

“I think the thing that helps us is everybody is athletic — one through five,” said Elmore, who finished with 32 points. “Our guards just defend excellent. I think we pick up the pace. Even more so than last year.

“I think it’s a different look than last year. Everyone takes it personal ... manto-man defense. It’s really just trying to shut the opponent down.”

Then, when the Bulldogs finally started to adjust slightly to “small ball,” D’Antoni made another move to “tall ball” with both the 6-9 Penava and 6-9 Williams on the floor.

That’s when Marshall took a substantial double-figure lead over Louisiana Tech.

And what was D’Antoni’s closing strategy?

More “small ball.”

Marshall went back to the four-guard lineup and simply pulled away from the beleaguered Bulldogs. That’s because the strategy also creates mismatches on offense for MU.

“They have to guard everybody,” said Elmore. “You can’t shrink off the perimeter because we’ve got four shooters out there and Ajdin can shoot, so that’s five. And Jannson can shoot. So, it’s just a different look that a lot of teams aren’t used to handling. It’s hard to guard.”

Particularly since this version of “small ball” plays harder, is quicker and more athletic.

We haven’t seen the last of “small ball.”

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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