Burks returns, but Herd struggle in sloppy victory


File Photo

Marshall’s CJ Burks (14) leaps for a pass as the Herd take on UTEP during the Conference USA men’s basketball quarterfinals on Thursday, March 10 in Birmingham, AL.

After sitting out the first 10 games of the season, sophomore guard CJ Burks returned to the Marshall lineup Monday night against West Virginia Wesleyan. That should have been the lone story of the game.

It wasn’t.

Instead, the talk following MU’s 81-65 win was about Marshall’s struggles on both sides of the ball against the inferior Bobcats. The game did not start out that way, however. In the early moments, it looked as if the Herd had the answers.

Marshall (7-4) raced out to a 6-1 lead with 16:25 left in the first half, allowing just 8 shots from Wesleyan in that stretch. The Herd would eventually extend its lead to 33-9 with 5 minutes left in the half. But, Marshall would allow the Bobcats to add 23 points to their total before the half was over and the Herd took a mere 41-26 lead into halftime.

Despite launching 15 threes, MU only connected on 5 of them in the opening half, good for 33 percent from behind the arc. The second half was equally as unkind to Marshall in the three-point shooting department.

The Herd opened the second half with back-to-back misses from three-point territory, allowing Wesleyan to slice into the lead. The Bobcats cut it down to as few as 7 with 16:12 to play, but junior Jon Elmore and senior Stevie Browning, who led the team with 21 points, combined for 12 points over the next five minutes, helping push the Marshall lead back to 15 with nearly 12 minutes to play.

Marshall ultimately expanded their lead to as many as 25 before allowing the Bobcats to go on a 10-3 to close the game, cutting the lead to only 15 as the final buzzer sounded. Another abysmal shooting half nearly doomed the Herd, however, as Marshall shot just 35 percent from the field in the second frame. Conversely, the Herd defense allowed the Bobcats to shoot an even 50 percent from the field in the second half, giving up 39 points. Marshall also conceded 24 rebounds in the second half, losing the total rebounding battle 41-40.

Despite the struggles across the board, Browning was upbeat about the game.

“We didn’t take them lightly at all,” Browning said. “It helped us defensively, and it helped us to get C.J. back into the flow offensively and defensively. I think a lot of good things came from this game.”

Burks returning was one of the major storylines of the game and a definite plus for the Herd going forward. The sophomore was forced to sit the opening stretch of the season due to academic ineligibility, but with the end of the fall semester having come and gone, it was widely expected head coach Dan D’Antoni would be getting him back soon. According to Burks, however, he found out moments before the team took the court.

“I learned right before warmups,” Burks said. “It means a lot, I sat out a lot…I was mad at myself because it was my fault why I wasn’t out there and I felt like I let the team down. But, it feels good to be back out there with guys.”

In his first game back, Burks saw considerable playing time, logging 25 minutes. He also chipped in 11 points and 5 assists, seemingly picking right back up where he left last season.

“C.J. is an extremely talented kid,” Browning said. “To get him back is a relief, and it helps everybody out. From guards to bigs…it helps everybody out.”

D’Antoni was also pleased to have Burks back at his disposal.

“Obviously, he’s going to make us stronger,” D’Antoni said. “We can do better rotations, get some more people on the bench and rest them more during games. I expect a lot out of CJ. It will just make us stronger.”

Marshall’s focus now turns to their next opponent, the number 24-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (9-2). Marshall is currently 0-1 on the season against Power-5 opponents, losing to Ohio State earlier this month 111-70, but, the Herd are not letting that loss dash their confidence.

“We lost at Ohio State, but I think we are a lot better team than we were then,” Browning said. “…I think at full strength I would think that we can surprise them. It wouldn’t be a surprise to us, but to the rest of the country it would. I think we’re capable of it.”

Getting back to full-strength may be easier said than done. Junior forward Terrence Thompson has been out for majority of December after suffering an abdominal injury in practice and senior forward Ryan Taylor has missed the team’s last two contest with a calf injury. D’Antoni said after the game that there is no timetable for either’s return.

“I looked at Ryan’s leg and he had a lot of swelling in his calf,” D’Antoni said. “He said he feels better and is pretty sure he’ll go against Cincinnati. With Terrence with the stomach muscle, we thought he was going to be back in two weeks…we’ll just have to wait and see, week-to-week.”

The Herd will need both men to be suited up and as close to 100 percent as possible if they hope to beat the preseason pick to win the American Athletic Conference. Marshall travels to Fifth-Third Bank Arena in Cincinnati Thursday, December 22. The game tips-off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on the CBS Sports Network.

Jake Griffith can be contacted at [email protected].