When he addressed a Kentucky coaches convention in September, Marshall Coach Tom Herrion spoke optimistically about the upcoming season. He also joked about how stress made his last name sound like heroin.
So far, the latter reference applies as Marshall prepares to play at Kentucky on Saturday.
"We have to play a lot better," Herrion said Thursday. "We didn't expect to be 7-5 at this point."
Surprises (in the bad sense) abound for Marshall, which had been tabbed as one of Conference USA's best teams. Most involve the position teams most want stable and secure: point guard.
On Nov. 15, the NCAA ruled freshman Kareem Canty ineligible. Gone went the presumptive starter who had practiced much of the pre-season. "For us, very unexpected," Herrion said.
The Thundering Herd moved DeAndre Kane, an All-Conference USA scoring guard (16.4 ppg last season), to the point. Then he injured a hand in an off-the-court incident last week.
Thirty-nine turnovers in the last two games speaks to a Marshall team in flux.
"We're still a complete work in progress," Herrion said. "There are a lot of moving parts. We have to keep moving guys around and adjusting roles."
This process has elevated Scott County product Tamron Manning into greater prominence and brought Herrion another surprise.
"I didn't expect (Manning to play) 30 minutes against Cincinnati," the Marshall coach said of Manning's full-immersion baptism against UC last weekend.
After playing 16 minutes in Wednesday's victory over Savannah State, Manning faces an interesting paradox. He's a freshman looking to help lead older, more experienced players. Yet, he's one of the few Marshall players with experience playing in Rupp Arena. He twice helped Scott County reach the finals of the Sweet Sixteen, scoring 28 points in the 2012 championship game.
"I actually feel pretty good about it," Manning said Thursday of the return to Central Kentucky. "It should be really fun. I'm looking forward to it."
Manning, who turns 19 on Dec. 29, said he needed to prepare his teammates for Kentucky fans.
"A little bit crazier than normal fans," he said. "It gets really loud, especially when Kentucky starts making runs. We've got to stay focused on what we're doing and not worry about the fans."
Herrion lauded Manning's work ethic, grasp on fundamentals and feel for the game. Manning probably needs that grounding as he faces the task of playing point guard on the college level against top competition.
"He has to continue to gain confidence," the Marshall coach said. "You only gain experience by getting experience."
Herrion acknowledged that opponents defend more aggressively because of Marshall's unsettled point guard play.
"No doubt," he said. "Absolutely. Starting with the Cincinnati game. They really, really tried to disrupt us with constant pressure." Herrion expects more of the same from Kentucky.
Playing a leadership position as a freshman presents challenges, Manning said.
"It's tough," he said. "Throughout the summer and throughout the beginning of the season, I've gained a lot of that trust," he said. " ... By coming out every day and playing. Trying to make sure you're first in the gym and the last one to leave. The older guys notice that, that I go hard."
Manning and teammate Elijah Pittman (who helped Covington Holmes to the 2009 state championship) reflect Marshall's efforts to recruit Kentucky-bred players. Pittman is the team's third-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a great recruiting base locally," Herrion said. "We have to go to other people's areas."
Assistant Mark Cline, a native of Williamson, W.Va., on the Kentucky-West Virginia border and once a prospect recruited by UK, sold Herrion on the idea of seeking players in the Bluegrass State. Such Kentucky high school products as George Stone, Blaine Henry and Bunny Gibson helped Marshall teams to success in the past.
The game at Kentucky televised by ESPN2 is more than a homecoming for Manning and Pittman. It's an opportunity to expose Marshall basketball.
Noting that the Thundering Herd has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 1987 (and never won an NCAA Tournament game), Herrion said of his third season as coach, "We're still early in the process of restoring the program to (the success of) the 1960s and 1970s.
"We have to put ourselves in the light."
Marshall adds a player
Help could be on the way for Marshall in the form of Kelvin Amayo, a 6-4 freshman guard from Newark, N.J., who was added to the roster Thursday.
Amayo, who enrolled at Marshall in January 2011 as an academic non-qualifier, practiced for the first time with the Thundering Herd on Thursday afternoon. He is eligible for competition immediately.
Amayo was a three-star recruit out of high school (class of 2011) by Rivals.com. He averaged 20 points, six rebounds and five assists for NIA Prep and led them to a 26-7 record and a No. 6 national ranking among the country's prep schools.