— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two of the hotter mid-major teams in all of college basketball clash Saturday in Huntington when Marshall hosts James Madison.
The New Year’s Eve game tips at 2 p.m., and will be shown on ESPN+.
Both teams opened up Sun Belt Conference play Thursday night with victories. Marshall used a strong second half to defeat Appalachian State, 79-53, while JMU picked up a 63-47 win at Georgia State.
Marshall’s balanced scoring and strong rebounding were again key against the Mountaineers. Five players scoring in double figures and the Herd (12-2, 1-0) finished with a commanding 49-24 rebounding edge.
James Madison (10-4, 1-0) had a strong defensive effort in its win in Atlanta, forcing 21 Georgia State turnovers.
Like Marshall, James Madison is a first-year Sun Belt Conference member.
Senior guard Vado Morse leads JMU with 13.2 points per game. Graduate guard Takal Molson averages 12.4 and sophomore wing Terrence Edwards is at 10.9. Graduate forward Mezie Offurum is the Dukes’ top rebounder at 5.2, while Morse is JMU’s assist leader with 34.
James Madison’s ability to create turnovers shows with nine different Dukes having recorded 10-plus steals, led by Molson’s 22.
JMU shoots 49.8 percent overall and 38 percent from the 3-point line.
Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni believes a tough task awaits his team Saturday.
“They’re not big, but athletic,” D’Antoni said. “They shoot well and get a lot of steals and they play at a pace similar to ours.”
The Dukes are coached by Mark Byington, who has a 38-25 record in three seasons. Before becoming head coach at JMU, Byington led the Georgia Southern program.
The Dukes’ losses this season are to then-number 1 North Carolina, Valparaiso in overtime, No. 3 Virginia and a two-overtime loss to Coppin State, which Marshall defeated earlier this season by 19 points.
Marshall’s bench scored 15 points in its most recently outing with seldom-used players Goran Miladinovic, Aymeric Toussaint and Marko Sarenac encouraging D’Antoni with their play.
“These guys work hard and have great attitudes,” D’Antoni said. “They are supportive of the starters and cheer them on while they’re on the floor, so it’s good to see these bench guys enjoy some success.”
Marshall and James Madison have met four times and the Dukes have won three. The teams last played in December 2015 a game JMU won, 107-84.