CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There was no World War of Words II stemming from this Capital Classic.
Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni, wholly affable and a trace contrite about the stir he created following last season’s loss, made a softer, more sensible argument for keeping West Virginia on the schedule. And here’s hoping West Virginia listens, because ultimately the school in Morgantown decides whether this game persists.
“Look at the crowd, look at the energy,” D’Antoni said when prodded a second time Thursday night for his well-known stance on continuing the series. “You don’t walk away from a game like that.”
Some 11,748 fans attended the Civic Center, coming within 600 of a sellout. They showed up to see one Top 25 team and one that was 3-6. Imagine the ticket demand should Marshall grow into Conference USA’s better basketball programs.
“It’s a great game for the state,” D’Antoni said. “That was my message last year and I probably raised it the wrong way.”
He did, and Bob Huggins stung back two days later on his radio show, sounding like a roastmaster armed with insults. Though the episode was entertaining, D’Antoni doesn’t want to be perceived as a coach who talks more than he wins. He was more measured this time, though no less passionate about his reasons.
And that’s where the series brings a rare and special opportunity these days, thanks to two coaches fronting their alma maters. That creates emotional investment and tethers the game to long memories.
Though D’Antoni fell to 0-2 as a Capital Classic coach, he understands what the mere opportunity means to his players, because he never had it. When he was Marshall’s point guard from 1967-1970, the series with WVU wasn’t a series at all—hadn’t been played since 1931. D’Antoni’s kid brother Mike starred for Marshall from 1970-1973 and never got a shot at the Mountaineers either.
“When I was (playing) here I was a little tainted, because we wanted to play them really bad—and the same when Mike’s team was there—and they avoided us,” D’Antoni said.
Now that the schools have played every year since 1978, “It’s the way it should be,” D’Antoni said, careful not to beg for respect or falsely prop up his program as something it isn’t. Only wins against West Virginia, and more crucially against C-USA foes, will support that.
For the trappings of a December nonconference game, however, this was bigger, better, zestier than most.
“We just wanted to get our fans yelling louder than their fans,” said West Virginia MVP Jevon Carter, a Chicago kid who had no inkling of this series before last season. “We wanted to make it feel like a home game even though we were wearing blue.”
And for real impact, it was hard to ignore Herd sophomore guard Jon Elmore, who missed 8 of 9 shots yet still treasured his first Classic game.
“It was amazing. I’d like the results to have been a little bit different, but growing up in Charleston as a kid I always dreamed of playing in this game. Kids from here worship this game. I have nothing but love for this game.”
Marshall has more reasons to love this game than the Mountaineers, but it’s not without rewards for both.