LOUISVILLE KY - NOVEMBER 27: Preston Knowles #2 of the Louisville Cardinals defends DeAndre Kane #24 of the Marshall Thundering Herd during the game at the KFC Yum! Center on November 27 2010 in Louisville Kentucky. Louisville won 80-66. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Houston Lets Marshall Steal Victory

It was a back-and-forth battle all evening, and the Cougars ended up giving it away.

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Coogs Let Another One Slip Away

While first-year Cougar head coach James Dickey has done an admirable job in a difficult situation, and has a recruiting class coming in next year that has the Houston faithful drooling, Tuesday night's 63-62 home loss to Marshall brings up some questions about the coaching job he is doing.

Why couldn't the Cougars hit better than 19-of-31 from the charity stripe? When you miss 12 free throws and lose by a single point, it's not difficult to find the culprit.

Why can't Houston ever run a good offensive play in crunch time? At the end of the first half, the Cougars called a timeout, and ran nothing resembling a play, en route to not scoring. After the Cougars pulled down a rebound with a 1-point lead and 58 seconds left in regulation, Dickey opted not to use one of his two remaining timeouts, and the Cougar offensive possession came up empty. Literally. Zamal Nixon forced up a three with a hand in his face, and airballed it. This has been a disturbing trend all year.

Why couldn't the Coogs guard Marshall's screens? It wasn't even as though the Thundering Herd were running complicated multiple screens or anything. It took one player setting a pick for one other player to leave Houston's defense bewildered. This led to a parade of Marshall dunks and lay-ups.

I understand that this team is severely short-handed, for a number of reasons that are out of Dickey's control. But there were a number of coach-able mistakes that were made against Marshall, and it cost Houston the game.

Maurice McNeil had 16 points and 9 rebounds in a losing effort. Freshman Alandise Harris got to the line a stunning 20 times, but ended up with "just" 16 points. Herd freshman DeAndre Kane paced all scorers with 24 points.

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Struggling Cougars To Host Marshall

Marshall Thundering Herd (12-7, 2-4 Conference USA) at Houston Cougars (9-9, 3-4 Conference USA)

Tip-off: 8:00, 2/1

The Line: Marshall by 3

A once-promising conference campaign has turned ugly for the Cougars, who have lost three straight games. Still, due to the miracle of Conference USA mediocrity, Houston finds itself just two games back of conference-leading UTEP, Memphis and UAB. The conference-wide rush towards the middle leaves it unlikely that C-USA will be a multi-bid league at NCAA tournament time, making the jockeying for conference tournament positioning of paramount importance. The Coogs truly can't afford to lose tonight's game - a home game against a middling Marshall squad - with so many tough match-ups (including all three previously-mentioned leaders) still left on the schedule.

The heart-breaking loss to ECU did have the silver lining of the reemergence of senior forward Maurice McNeil. After sitting out Houston's January 15th victory over UCF, McNeil had gone three straight games with single-digit points, and five or fewer rebounds, but broke through against the Pirates, tallying his seventh double-double of the season, with 18 points and 13 boards. Marshall's top seven contributors top out at 6'6", so look for McNeil to have another big game.

One important personnel question is whether or not Kirk Van Slyke has got himself out of head coach James Dickey's doghouse. The sophomore forward didn't make the trip to ECU, leaving the Coogs with a rotation of just seven players. The already-shorthanded team can't afford any more losses.

The Thundering Herd are a tough squad to gauge. They suffered early season losses to the likes of Chattanooga and James Madison, their 2-4 conference record includes a home loss to East Carolina, and last-place UCF's only conference win. They are 2-3 in their last five games, but those two wins came over West Virginia and Memphis (by 15).

Marshall has been effective in stopping opponents from shooting the three, holding the other team to a 28.5% mark on the year, including a combined 11-of-43 (25.5%) mark by WVU and Memphis in the Herd's most recent victories. The Coogs have shown this year that they can't beat teams with the inside game alone, so it will be critical for them to get the outside shot going.

Much like the Cougars, the Thundering Herd don't rely heavily on one scorer, but spread the scoring load around. Freshman guard DeAndre Kane (15.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg), junior point guard Damier Pitts (15.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), senior forward Tirrell Baines (12.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and junior guard Shaquille Johnson (10.0 ppg) are the primary contributors.

Marshall is just 3-5 in true road games this year, while Houston is 7-2 against Division 1 opponents at Hofheinz Pavilion, where the Thundering Herd has never won.

If you can't make tonight's game, Dustin will be live-tweeting. Follow at www.twitter.com/scottandholman/

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