The game ended, the celebration began and the winning coach got a hug from his brother, which was notable for the fact that one of them coaches the team with the NBA’s best record and the other was the butt of jokes when Marshall hired him out of nowhere four years ago.
For his entire professional life, Dan D’Antoni never looked at it the way many would: Two siblings, two coaches; the younger brother Mike celebrated for changing the paradigm of how the game is played at the highest level, the older brother never getting his chance at a star turn.
“That’s never how it’s been in our family,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “I’m comfortable with who I am, and he’s comfortable with who he is, and we’ve always done that.”
But for this week at least, 70-year-old Dan D’Antoni has an opportunity to be the most well-known member of his family because, if nothing else, the Marshall team he coaches is going to entertain you in the NCAA tournament. And as the No. 13 seed in the East Region, it might do a whole lot more than that.
Though tournament-tested Wichita State will be a heavy favorite in their first-round matchup, no team in the field is as unpredictable or unorthodox as Marshall with its wide-open, shoot-from-anywhere style. Only two NCAA tournament teams, Oklahoma and Lipscomb, play at a faster pace.
The result is a product that looks a lot like what Mike D’Antoni brought to the NBA with the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns and now the Houston Rockets, only with a roster of overlooked recruits that honors the D’Antoni way by blending pure West Virginia (three starters are homegrown kids) with a little European flair (Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia are represented on the roster).
“When we played here, we played like that,” said D’Antoni, who was the starting point guard on Marshall’s 1968 NIT team, back when the NIT was a big deal. “We didn’t have the benefit of the three-point line, but that's the way we played. No center, no low post threats. We scored 127 points against ODU without the three-point line when I played. Both Mike’s team and my team averaged up in the 80s and 90s, kind of played a fast break wide-open system that took the first good shot, whatever it is. A lot of people want to over-emphasize the quick shot is the bad shot. I’ve seen a lot of slower shots are the bad shots, too.”
In the NBA, that isn’t even controversial anymore. With Mike D’Antoni starting the pace revolution years ago and the Golden State Warriors smashing every narrative that suggested a team couldn’t win a title by playing small and shooting threes, the culture war is over in most of the basketball universe.
In college, though, it still rages.
Virginia, the top-ranked team in the country, plays at the slowest tempo in all of Division I, according to the Ken Pomeroy efficiency ratings. Among the tournament’s top 16 seeds, only two are in the top-50 in pace: No. 4 seed Auburn (No. 21 in tempo) and No. 2 seed North Carolina (right at No. 50).
Though college basketball purists pride themselves on delivering a different game from the NBA, the truth is that its inherent one-and-done tournament drama often masks a product that is over-coached, over-officiated and aesthetically inferior.
What makes Marshall so appealing is D’Antoni’s utter contempt for playing that way, and the results speak for themselves, having improved the team’s record in each of his four seasons, culminating with the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1987.
And in his mind, it honors what basketball in West Virginia always was as taught by his high school coach father, Lewis, and by the legend of Cam Henderson, the famed Marshall coach from 1935-1955 who is credited with inventing the fast break.
“That style went away, I think, with the five-star camps and the slower, they’d say better defense, but it’s not really better defense,” D’Antoni said. “It’s slower offense that kind of wants to pick shots instead of let shots occur and more of a coach style that took over for a long time.
D’Antoni himself tried to coach that way before, emulating Bobby Knight and coaching "like a dummy," as he said in a famous postgame rant in December 2016. But then when Mike D’Antoni called him from Europe, newly enlightened by the spread floor and the volume of three-pointers being shot by championship teams, Dan D’Antoni came along.
In 2005, he left Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C., after 30 years as a successful coach there to join his brother on the Phoenix Suns’ bench, ultimately following him to the Knicks and Lakers.
“I went to an accelerated classroom for 10 years, and you almost have to be a dummy not to learn something,” Dan D’Antoni said. “I got a lot of mileage from my brother and NBA players and liked the style and brought it back here. It’s really the way the game’s going.”
Still, when he got the Marshall job — 66 years old at the time, no relevant college experience — it was fair to wonder if it was a stunt. And it wasn't just college basketball commentators unanimously panning the hire.
“Conference USA coaches are texting me at a furious rate downright giddy by the fact that Marshall hired Dan D’Antoni,” ESPN’s Jeff Goodman tweeted.
Needless to say, the consensus was off by a million miles, which makes it one of the great stories of this NCAA tournament.
And when Marshall blocked two game-winning shot attempts by Western Kentucky to win the C-USA’s automatic bid, D'Antoni viewed it as life finally coming full circle. He thought about his father, of course. And then he thought about Ray Hagley, a booster and team physician whose garage house D'Antoni lived in after graduating in 1970. That year, D'Antoni stayed on campus as an assistant and grew close to Hagley, who talked about him being the head coach at Marshall one day.
But on Nov. 14, 1970, Hagley and his wife Shirley were among the 75 people on a DC-9 that crashed while attempting to bring the Marshall football team home from a game at East Carolina.
That event, memorialized in Hollywood film and still resonant with every mention of Marshall University, was deeply personal for D’Antoni. He knew everyone on that plane, including a number of boosters who had supported the basketball program.
Nothing was ever the same. D’Antoni left the next year, Marshall basketball withered over time, and the idea that he could one day come back as the head coach seemed ever more distant.
That’s why D’Antoni felt the pull of fate in everything that happened Saturday, having finally gotten the job Doc Hagley always wanted him to have, bringing his alma mater back to national prominence and having his brother there to celebrate all of it with him; none of those elements possible without the other.
“If it hadn’t been for him bringing me into the NBA, I wouldn’t have had a chance for this job,” D’Antoni said. “I’ll never know how life will work. Sometimes I wonder if we’re just passengers and not really the captain of our own ship. You just work your way and here I am and fulfilling the destiny back to the plane crash. It just had its course to get me here, so here I am.”