HUNTINGTON — The last time Marshall coach Tony Kemper was on a basketball floor before a game, his team was walking off after hearing the Conference USA tournament was canceled.
That was just before noon on March 12 in Frisco, Texas.
In the eight months since, there has been little about Kemper’s world that has seemed normal.
Last week, however, a bit of normalcy came in an odd fashion for Kemper.
When the Conference USA women’s basketball poll was released, Marshall’s women’s basketball team was chosen to finish 12th out of 14 teams by the league’s coaches.
For Kemper, that was a somewhat normal feeling.
“We’re always picked 12 or 13 or somewhere in there,” Kemper said. “Two years ago, we were fifth and last year, we were eighth.”
Being voted among the bottom rungs of Conference USA is nothing new for Kemper or his team, but their previous results have shown an ability to play above expectations.
Even in the oddest of years, competition can come down to simple motivation, which Kemper feels his team will have once again.
“I don’t know why that wouldn’t motivate us,” Kemper said. “I don’t understand how we’d be wired any different than to have a little something in our craw about that.”
From an outside perspective, the preseason ranking could be justified. Marshall lost three seniors — all in its frontcourt — with leader Khadaijia Brooks and fellow post players Princess Clemons and Ashley Saintigene now gone.
While those seniors are gone, Kemper has full trust in this year’s crop of leaders, which includes seniors Taylor Pearson and Kristen Mayo, who were two of the team’s leading scorers last season.
“Taylor Pearson and Kristen Mayo have played a ton here at Marshall and have had the ball in their hands when it matters and guarded people that we knew if we were going to have success, they had to do well against them,” Kemper said. “They practice hard, they are great students. Our leadership should be spot on with that crew.”
Marshall added another senior leader to the mix in Stetson transfer Kennedi Colclough, who Kemper said can come in right away and boost the frontcourt after last season’s graduation losses there.
“I’ve been extremely pleased with her,” Kemper said. “She hit the ground running. She very much feels, looks and acts like those other two I just talked about, except I’ve never had her in a game.”
The potential X-factor for the team is the growth of sophomore point guard Savannah Wheeler, who was named to the Preseason All-Conference USA team. Wheeler averaged 13.4 points per game last season en route to being named to the league’s all-freshman team.
The Catlettsburg, Kentucky, native was more focused on the future success of the team when talking about the preseason honor.
“I don’t try to look at the individual side of it,” Wheeler said. “I like to focus on the team part of it because the way I see it, whatever you do to reach your team goals, everything else will fall into place.”
Marshall does have a large nucleus of newcomers into the program, including freshmen guards C.C. Mays, Ksenija Mitric and Sarah Libertore, along with freshman forward Aarionna Redman.
Colclough, Ole Miss transfer Mahogany Matthews and redshirt freshman guard Christiana McLean add to the newcomers on the floor.
While the transition will be new for all, Kemper credited his group for its mental toughness during possibly one of the most trying transitions in college sports history — the COVID-19 era.
“You can’t go home and, socially, it’s very hard to meet people outside of our basketball circle,” Kemper said. “It’s just different and I give them a lot of credit for adjusting to times that are just unprecedented in what we’re asking them to do.”
Kemper said that the coaching aspect of dealing with COVID-19 also is different, given protocols and the unknown nature of even the next day.
“It’s hard to plan very far in advance because it’s kind of worthless, honestly,” Kemper said. “You’ve got a plan that lasts for sometimes less than 24 hours and that thing goes out the window. You’ve got to be wiggly. That’s my term. You’ve got to be wiggly as a team.”
For Marshall to wiggle out of that 12th-place preseason denomination, the Herd women have to come together as a unit quickly.
With Conference USA moving to a region-based schedule for the 2020-21 season, Marshall goes against the best of the best in the league with 10 of its 18 games coming against the projected five best teams in C-USA.
“We kind of went region-based and our region is Middle Tennessee, Western (Kentucky), Charlotte, Old Dominion,” Kemper said. “In women’s basketball, those schools have been tremendously consistent and good. Then, we go out of our region and they hand us Rice, which Rice is the back-to-back conference champions. That’s 10 games right there against the five best teams in the league.”
It is a daunting task, but one Kemper said his team looks forward to tackling as the season gets underway.
“We’ll be motivated and I think they’ll feel like they have something to try to prove,” Kemper said. “They are wired in the right way. I think the leadership is wired right. They are going to have to play well.”