TOWSON, Md. — Towson lost a basketball game here on Saturday. What was news about that was that the loss was news.
“Last year we just had no shot,” Coach Pat Skerry said after his team’s four-game winning streak ended with a 70-59 loss to Northeastern. “Every night was like going through a root canal without novocaine.”
Skerry isn’t exaggerating. Last year, the Tigers went 1-31 and, dating from the prior season, had dropped an NCAA-record 41 straight games before they finally managed to get a win in February against UNC Wilmington. As if that weren’t enough suffering for one school, the NCAA declared Towson ineligible for postseason play this season because it had failed to meet minimum academic standards prior to Skerry’s arrival last season.
That hardly seemed to matter before the start of this season. Now, it matters. Remarkably, Saturday’s performance aside, the Tigers are good enough to make noise in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The problem is, they aren’t eligible to play in it.
“My goal is for us to go to the [pre-tournament] banquet as the regular season champions, collect the player of the year award and the coach of the year award and then I’ll take everyone out to dinner at a great steak place,” Towson Athletic Director Mike Waddell said. “Then we’ll come home the next day on a limousine-bus. If need be, I’ll pay for it myself.”
Waddell’s fantasy isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. Towson dropped to 3-1 in CAA play Saturday, a game behind 4-0 Northeastern. The Tigers clearly have a player of the year candidate in Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon and if they continue to play at this level, Skerry will probably be a unanimous choice as coach of the year.
Towson (8-9) has already won eight times as many games as last season and found a way to win last month at Oregon State, easily the program’s best win since a victory over Louisville in 1995.
“In some ways we should be farther along than we are,” Skerry said. “But you have to take some lumps when you’re building from the ground up. We had some trouble meshing personalities early and we’re still learning to deal with prosperity.” He smiled. “Of course, that’s a brand new concept for us right now.”
Skerry arrived at Towson from Pittsburgh two springs ago, a 42-year-old Energizer bunny who had coached at nine schools in 20 years, his only head coaching experience 18 years ago at Division III Curry College. Waddell hired him over a handful of coaches with “more apparent pedigree” than Skerry because he had a plan and clearly had the kind of energy needed to take over a moribund program that had slid to the bottom of the CAA in every possible way.
“Here’s what’s most impressive about Pat,” Waddell said Saturday as one fan after another came up to him before the game to revel in the fact that Towson was on a four-game winning streak for the first time since 2000. “After we won at Drexel last Saturday, he told the players they deserved to win the game because they’ve become a good enough team to go on the road to a tough place and win.
“Then he got in his car and drove to Massachusetts to see six high school games on Sunday. That’s the reason we’ve gotten so much better so quickly.”
There are four transfers on the team.
The most notable being Benimon, a 6-foot-8 junior who graduated from Fauquier High School and averaged about 10 minutes a game off the bench in two years at Georgetown.
He came to Towson to play more and score more and has done plenty of both, averaging 17.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. Saturday, he was double-teamed almost every time he touched the ball and still finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, the 11th time this season he’s been in double figures in both categories.
“When I played at Georgetown we won all the time,” he said. “But we never won any championships so this doesn’t feel any different.”
Except for the numbers and the double-teams. “I’m used to it by now,” he said. “I know every game that’s the way it’s going to be.”
On Saturday, Towson jumped to a 25-13 lead and looked like it might cruise to a fifth straight win and a 4-0 conference mark before Northeastern Coach Bill Coen switched to a 3-2 zone that baffled the Tigers and kept them out of the lane for most of the last 25 minutes.
That was small consolation to Skerry, who, like any coach, thought his team should have adjusted better. The Tigers clearly got frustrated in the second half and began launching quick three-pointers, making just 6 of 24 (25 percent) for the game. Nineteen turnovers didn’t help, either. At the other end, Northeastern made 8 of 16 from long range and shot 46 percent for the game, eight percent higher than teams had been shooting against Towson before Saturday.
Even so, even as the crowd began leaving early to get home in plenty of time for the Ravens-Broncos NFL playoff game, it was apparent that there’s more light around here than the sunlight streaming in through the open doors at the end of a game that tipped at noon.
Towson’s grade-point average as a team was 2.9 last semester. The basement of the creaky, not-built-for-basketball Towson Center looks like a construction zone because it is one. Next door, the new 5,200-seat Tiger Arena is rapidly taking form and will be open in time for next season. Only one player — Bilal Dixon — graduates (in fact he’s already graduated) and another transfer, Four McGlynn, who was the America East rookie of the year last season at Vermont, waits in the wings.
In the meantime, Skerry pushes his players as if they were the defending conference champions rather than a team that considered a single-digit loss a victory a year ago.
“We have to learn when we’re up 12 because we’re shooting well we can’t let up because we miss some shots,” said Jerome Hairston, the talented freshman guard. “We need to put the pedal down and make that lead 20.”
Skerry smiled when Hairston said that. That’s exactly the kind of thinking he wants from his players.
There’s one other thing he likes about his players: They can play. “You want a loss to be disappointing, not business as usual,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But we’re on our way.”
More news: a Towson coach who thinks his team has a bright future — and no one is laughing when he talks about it.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein