Observation Room: Temple/Towson

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Towson's new $68 million SECU Arena is a huge improvement over the old Towson Center. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Towson’s new $68 million SECU Arena is a huge improvement over the old Towson Center. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Went down to Towson’s brand-new SECU Arena for the third regular-season game ever held at the Tigers’ new home, when Pat Skerry and his crew hosts Temple. Here are some thoughts, notes and quotes from Towson’s 75-69 win, which featured a career-high 32 points from CAA Preseason Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon.

SECU Arena Shines
The last time this writer was down at Towson’s campus, it was for a game in February, 2012, at the old Towson Center. That game, a 65-57 Drexel win, was one of the more depressing atmospheres, with Towson in the middle of a 1-31 season and playing in a dark, out-of-date and dirty arena in front of a few hundred apathetic fans.

Much has been written about the remarkable turnaround the Tigers program has had under Skerry, now in his third year as head coach after assistant gigs at high-major schools like Pittsburgh and Providence. Bringing in transfers like Jerrell Benimon (Georgetown) and Mike Burwell (South Florida) helped Towson to an 18-win season in 2012-13, and now they have a home court that fits a program on the rise. They had opened up with two wins at home before the Owls visited, but beating an American Athletic Conference squad in the building clearly had some extra meaning for the Tigers.

“It was big because obviously Temple is Temple, it’s a brand name and Fran Dunphy is one of those quasi rock stars in coaching, so you know they’re going to be a postseason team every year,” Skerry said. “It’s a good measuring stick for us.”

SECU Arena is everything Towson Center wasn’t: well-lit, clean and fan-friendly, with a solid student section and some real energy around the court. Though Skerry is likely to end up with a high-major coaching job at some point, the new digs means that Towson will become a destination job for the next up-and-coming coach in Division I hoops.

“Super, it’s what Division I basketball is supposed to be like. I thought the students were tremendous, the band, people came out, it was jumping in there pretty good and we’re really appreciative of that,” Skerry said. “It’s been great, it’s something that we haven’t had here so it’s a big step.”

For senior wing Marcus Damas, the new arena is extra special. Most of his teammates were either not on campus or were sitting out a transfer year during that 1-31 season, but he played in every game.

“The new arena is really special to us because we were changing as a team and we changed to a new gym. It drives us, it gives us more incentive to go even harder,” Damas said. ”It’s a good feeling from going to about five fans in the stands to filling up the crowd.”

Neumann-Goretti alum John Davis (10), now a freshman at Towson, is seeing limited minutes on a senior-heavy squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Neumann-Goretti alum John Davis (10), now a freshman at Towson, is seeing limited minutes on a senior-heavy squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Davis one year away for Towson
Towson forward John Davis, a Philadelphia native and Neumann-Goretti grad, is slowly working his way into the collegiate game. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound forward has seen action in all three of the Tigers’ games thus far this season, but with just single-digit minutes in all three contests thus far.

“Stuff I did in high school is definitely not going to work in college,” he told CoBL. “Everything is just a step up, now I’ve just basically got to go to the next level and take my game to the next level.”

As an undersized power forward, Davis is often matched up against Benimon, the defending CAA Player of the Year and one of the more skilled big men in the country, in practice. While he prides himself on helping Benimon prepare for the major minutes he’ll be needed to play for Towson to take home the CAA title, the younger forward is benefitting from the experience as well.

“Going against him every day, it helped me get a lot better defensively, offensively too because he’s a great defender,” Davis said. “Going against him and playing behind him, he teaches me a lot even when he doesn’t know he’s teaching me.”

Against Temple, Davis played just two minutes in a quick first-half appearance without registering any impact on the stat sheet. In the game before, against Morgan State, he played five minutes and registered three points and two rebounds.

The Tigers do have four seniors (Benimon, Damas, Rafriel Guthrie and Mike Burwell) on the roster, all of whom see more than 23 mpg through the teams’ first three games. So while the short-term prognosis seems to be limited for Davis, he knows that there will be plenty of minutes up for grabs in the frontcourt next year.

“I don’t really know what’s in store for next year, so any chance I get to get in the game I just go in and do what I can,” he said. “Basically I’m just waiting my turn, everybody’s got to wait their turn and next year will definitely be my turn.”

Temple’s finishing issues continue
For the third game in a row, Temple led a second-half lead slip away. And for the second game in a row, the Owls weren’t able to provide a late push of their own. A late 9-0 run over a 3:08 span turned a three-point Temple lead into a 66-60 deficit with 2:08 to play, and Towson held on for the win.

Things did get interesting late, as Temple had a few chances to pull within a point with under 30 seconds to go, but Dalton Pepper‘s layup and Anthony Lee‘s tip-in attempts were no good.

“We panicked a little bit, I don’t know that we’re ready yet to win this game on the road against this particular group, who is very well-coached and has got some senior leadership,” Dunphy said. “We’ve just got to tighten our things up and take better shots, we’re still a work in progress, I would say.”

Part of the issue stems from Temple’s needing to find a go-to scorer in those final minutes, because turnovers (15 for the game) continue to be more of an issue than Dunphy would like with an experienced point guard like junior Will Cummings.

“We’re just not tough enough yet, we’re gaining on that,” Dunphy said. “I thought we did some decent things again tonight, so I’m not overly disappointed in where we find ourselves, I’m encouraged where we find ourselves, now the disappointment jumps in there with holding that lead, but you can’t turn the ball over for easy baskets.”

Other Thoughts
–It’s going to be very hard for anybody not named Jerrelle Benimon to win the CAA Player of the Year award. He went for a career-high 32 points against Temple, and that’s a team with a pretty good defensive forward in Anthony Lee. Not only that, he did it playing down the stretch with four fouls, keeping himself in the game and giving the Tigers the victory. That career mark will fall again for the potential NBA prospect at some point this season.

Dalton Pepper is going to be good for one incredibly athletic play every game this season. Against Towson, it was a rather impressive block on a Damas layup after the Towson wing stripped him of the ball. The Owls need those kind of high-energy plays from the wing.

–At two points in the game, Temple players appeared to take hard shots that could have been serious injuries. Daniel Dingle was fouled into the basket support in the first half and need a minute to shake himself off; in the second, Lee went down on his elbow and needed the attention of the trainers. Few teams in Division I hoops would be in worse shape with a major injury, considering Temple has only eight players in the rotation and nobody behind them who’s expected to play any minute.

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