Towson continues rise to mid-major power

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Jerrelle Benimon and Towson were picked to win the CAA in the league's preseason poll. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Jerrelle Benimon and Towson had the biggest one-year turnaround in D-I history last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Two years ago, they were the laughingstock of Division I basketball. A solitary win in the 23rd game prevented Towson from going the entire 2011-12 season without a victory. Including the 19 losses to end the 2010-11 season, it was the longest losing streak by any non-transitioning Division I program.

Now, after an 18-win season that represented the biggest turnaround in Division I history, Pat Skerry and the Tigers are the preseason pick for the 2013-14 Colonial Athletic Association title, continuing the rapid rise of a program striving to become a mid-major powerhouse.

A 20-win season isn’t a pipe dream anymore for Skerry and company; already, it’s become the expectation.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Skerry said at the league’s media day on Tuesday. “It’s pressure–but that’s good, it’s what you sign up for in this racket.

“I know that’s why I wanted to come to Towson and why I recruited guys, because you want to be playing meaningful basketball games. We’ve got a chance to do that. Being picked first doesn’t mean a heck of a lot in March, but we’re embracing those expectations and we’re excited about it.”

When Skerry took over the program in April 2011 after one year as an assistant at Pittsburgh–he previously had assistant stints at Providence, Rhode Island, Charleston, William & Mary and Northeastern over the prior dozen years–he knew he was in for a rough first year. Towson had gone just 4-26 in Pat Kennedy’s final season, including a big 0-18 mark in conference play.

On top of the graduation of three seniors that combined for over 18 ppg, the two leading scorers, Isaiah Philmore (15.3 ppg) and Braxton Dupree (12.0 ppg) had both elected to transfer out. Then, in the fall, Rashawn Polk (11.6 ppg) was arrested and suspended from the team, leaving the leading returning scorer for Skerry’s first season as sophomore Erique Gumbs, who had scored 3.6 ppg the year before. The Tigers’ first steps would have to be small ones.

“That’s the best thing I learned working at Pitt, we told the guys ‘honor the process,’” Skerry said. “That gives the guys a chance for success. How you practice, how you lift, how you study, it matters every day and if we do that then we’ll be in the mix night in and night out.”

Indeed, Towson basketball was not a pretty thing to watch that year. A 46-point loss at Kansas opened up a string of eight double-digit losses to start the season; only when the Tigers played UMBC–a four-win team that season–did they come within five points, but still couldn’t win a game.

The losing continued until a Saturday afternoon game against the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, when 18 points from Marcus Damas and 15 from Deon Jones were enough to help the Tigers get the 66-61 decision. It was their only win of the year, but it showed that the process Skerry hoped to instill was beginning to take hold.

For the now 43-year-old head coach knew that there was help on the way. Sitting on the bench during that season were a pair of transfers, Jerrelle Benimon (Georgetown) and Mike Burwell (South Florida). By the time they were eligible, they were joined by former Providence big man Bilal Dixon, bringing some high-major talent to the mid-major conference.

The impact those three had on Skerry’s program was undeniable. Benimon, the 2013-14 CAA Player of the Year, led the conference in rebounding (11.2) and was fourth in scoring (17.1 ppg). Burwell started all 31 games, averaging 9.0 ppg and 3.2 rpg, while Dixon started all but one contest, trailing only Benimon in rebounding (7.3 rpg) while contributing 6.9 ppg as well.

But all was not quite well, at least not yet. All the departures in 2011 dragged Towson’s Academic Progress Rate below the acceptable NCAA standards, rendering the Tigers ineligible for any 2013 postseason play. Though Towson would have been the second seed in the CAA Tournament and a potential candidate for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, instead their season ended with a 67-64 win over Hofstra, capping a stretch of eight wins in nine games to close out the year.

Those penalties are lifted now, meaning Towson is back at full strength. Skerry’s brought in his second highly-regarded recruiting class in a row, including a Philadelphia native in Neumann-Goretti forward John Davis, as proof that it’s not going to be anytime soon that the Tigers return to the bottom of the CAA.

John Davis (left) is just one of a few talented youngsters Skerry has on the roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

John Davis (left) is just one of a few talented youngsters Skerry has on the roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

In his four years as a Saint, Davis helped bring four Catholic League titles and three state titles back to South Philadelphia. Skerry is counting on players like Davis to continue the winning mentality after players like Benimon and Burwell have moved on.

“John Davis eventually could be an all-conference guy in this league,” Skerry said. “He’s a lot more skilled than I thought. He’s got a couple older guys in front of him but he’s as tough a guy as we have, he’s going to be really, really good. He has that Philly toughness, I’m really excited about him.”

Now that 2011-12 season seems much further away in the past than just the 18 months it’s been, both time and space separating the current group of Tigers from that 1-31 season. For not only will Skerry have potentially the best Towson men’s basketball squad in history–they’ve never won more than 21 games since joining Division I in 1979-80–but he has a brand-new home court on which to display the progress his program has made.

The 5,200-seat SECU Arena has drawn rave reviews since construction finished over the summer, with club seats, private suites and an LED video display board that might give the rest of the conference some stadium envy. Comparing it to the old, dark and mostly-empty Towson Center that had been the teams’ home for the last 30-plus years would be like comparing Citizens Bank Park to Veterans Stadium–used for the same sport, but not many more similarities beyond that.

“The energy in the old Towson Center just wasn’t there,” Skerry admitted. “The new place is off the charts, it’s spectacular. No disrespect to anywhere else in our conference but nobody has a place like it.”

The home-court advantage doesn’t end there. Due to the recent round of conference realignment that saw southern schools Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Old Dominion and Georgia State all move to other leagues, the CAA moved its conference tournament to Baltimore, all of 10 miles from Towson’s campus.

Just like Virginia Commonwealth’s fans tended to dominate the Rams’ games at the old Richmond Coliseum, Tiger faithful have an opportunity to turn First Mariner Arena into another Towson home court come March.

“I’m pumped up that the tournament’s coming down to Baltimore,” Skerry said. “Baltimore’s a wonderful city, I think people are going to realize it. The fact that there’s 400,000 CAA alums in this area I think could make for a really special basketball atmosphere.”

One thing is clear about Towson now–there’s nowhere for the Tigers to hide. The nation has caught onto what Skerry has done in these last two years, and now the spotlight is focused bright on the coach and the program.

Are they ready? Starting in two weeks, we’ll all find out.

“With expectations you’ve got to have a heightened sense of responsibility,” Skerry said. “The deal is if you’re picked first and then you don’t come in first, you didn’t meet expectations. But you do want them because you want it to mean something to your staff, your program, your administration, your student body, your alums. I want it to mean something every year and I think we’re on the verge of doing that.”

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