A palpable sense of urgency travels with Towson State.
In years past, coach Terry Truax lined up dates with heavyweight foes for several reasons. Besides banking substantial cash guarantees, playing at North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia and New Mexico gave his players exposure and toughened them for lesser East Coast Conference foes they overcame en route to two straight titles and NCAA appearances.
This season is different. The Tigers are heavy favorites to become the first team in the 17-year history of the ECC to win three straight titles, but lack of continuity in the conference's membership means that the winner of the 1992 postseason tournament will not have automatic entry to the 64-team NCAA field.
"We're trying to get back into the NCAA tournament, and that means we've got to play well right from the beginning," senior point guard Devin Boyd said. "Without an automatic bid available at the end of the season, the games in November are just as important as the games in March."
In addition to a failed attempt to enter the North Atlantic Conference, Towson State's off-season travails included Truax's coming close to landing two other jobs. Overlooked was that the Tigers have never had this combination of talent, depth and experience.
Towson State is capable of winning 20 games and landing a berth in the NIT. If it can play over its head on occasion and deal with a schedule that has just two games at the Towson Center before Jan. 27, then Boyd & Co. can begin to consider a third straight trip to the NCAAs.
Only sixth man Lewis Waller is gone from a team that went 19-11 and trailed Ohio State by five points late in an NCAA first-round game. The Tigers need to finish one of those upset bids to forget games like last November's at Maryland, when they trailed by 44-15 at the half. Beginning Monday at Colorado, which went to the NIT semifinals last March, it's time to stop talking and start delivering.
"I'm not going to downplay the ability of our kids," Truax said. "We've got three guys [Boyd and fellow seniors Chuck Lightening and Terrance Jacobs] who could play regularly for just about every team that goes to the NCAAs. We've been blessed with people of that caliber for the last three, four years.
"For the third time in four years, Boyd is going to be playing against North Carolina. We've gotten experience against that accelerated type of competition, and the players know what has to be done."
Waller's roster spot was taken by Terrance Alexander, the consensus area Player of the Year for Dunbar last season, and Truax said the Tigers never have begun a campaign this strategically advanced.
Their savvy begins with Boyd, a 6-foot-2 senior from Walbrook who was the ECC Player of the Year. He should get the school record for career assists next week, and if he can duplicate last season's 20.7 average, he also would become Towson State's all-time leading scorer.
Lightening, an ECC all-star, and Jacobs, who transferred into the program without a hitch last year, are also primed and healthy. Lightening is listed as a small forward and Jacobs as the shooting guard, but there are nights when Jacobs spends as much time inside as Lightening, the Tigers' most consistent post-up possibility in 1990-91.
The three seniors need bigger contributions from four forward types who saw considerable playing time last season.
Larry Brown was the only player to start all 30 games, but he anfellow junior William Griffin have to show more confidence with the ball. John James replaced Griffin as the starting center last February, and the lean shot-blocker and sophomore classmate Matt Campbell both make contributions that don't always up show up in the statistics.
Senior Myron Ray and junior Craig Valentine are the toreturning substitutes in the backcourt, but Alexander has learned the Tigers' system quickly.
Towson State shot 26.3 percent from three-point range and it has only two players as tall as 6-8. Truax, however, is hopeful that the Tigers' ability to take the ball to the basket and play pressure defense will have them playing after the ECC tournament.