Towson's Kennedy trying a little peer counseling

December 11, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

MOST PEOPLE LOOK at the Towson University men's basketball program and see a perennial loser entrenched near the bottom of Division I.

But when Pat Kennedy looks, he sees, of all things, Southern Illinois.

"The schools are similar in many ways: size of the student population, average incoming board scores, facilities," said Kennedy, in his first year as Towson's coach. "The only difference is they have averaged 23 or 24 wins over the past five years."

Indeed, Southern Illinois' Salukis are one of college basketball's best "mid majors," able to compete with top programs while residing in the smaller Missouri Valley Conference.

"There's no reason why we can't be doing the same thing," Kennedy said.

At Towson? With a program that has had only seven winning seasons and two NCAA tournament appearances since moving to Division I a quarter-century ago?

Kennedy, 52, speaks as if it is only a matter of time.

"Right now, we're still a `low major' program," Kennedy said. "But with a good three years of moving forward at a full sprint, we should have things going. That's been my timetable everywhere else. Within three years, we're usually knocking on the [NCAA tournament] door."

Local basketball Joneses might faint at the suggestion. Other than Fang Mitchell's Coppin State teams in the late '90s, and Towson's under Terry Truax more than a decade ago, the area's Division I programs have never produced headlines.

Southern Illinois? That's another world. But Kennedy, a disciple of the late Jim Valvano, is from that world.

A head coach since 1980, he took Iona, Florida State and De Paul to the NCAAs within four years of taking over. Each run eventually went dry, and he wasn't successful at Montana, departing this past spring after two losing seasons. (Towson's offer of a multi-year deal was better than Montana's year-to-year arrangement.)

Although eight of his most recent 11 teams have finished below .500, he has won 418 games, more than all but 19 active Division I coaches.

"I know what we need here," he said. "It's going to come down to recruiting."

Only one player he inherited was recruited by another major program, Kennedy said.

"The others just came here and started playing on, like, a first-come basis," he said. "If we keep bringing in players at that level, we will have the same [losing] results. We have to start getting players other schools wanted."

He already has one; junior point guard Cantrell Fletcher, a transfer from Cecil Community College who also visited Hawaii and Tulsa.

Another transfer is also on campus, sitting out a year to regain his eligibility: Terrance Whiters is a Baltimore native who was a top 100 national recruit coming out of the Laurinburg Institute, a North Carolina prep school, and spent the past two years in Loyola-Chicago's backcourt.

"He's probably our best player," Kennedy said.

The Tigers also just signed Dennard Abraham, a 6-9, 260-pound banger from Franklin High School in Owings Mills who played AAU ball with Whiters and has starred for two years at South Plains College in Texas. He reportedly turned down several major programs.

Truax's best NCAA teams were similarly composed of Baltimore high school stars who went away (to Division I schools such as Western Kentucky, Xavier and Old Dominion) before transferring home. Kennedy is selling that vision, as well as the chance to play for a coach who once took a team to the Elite Eight.

"Terry did it with transfers, and I think they're going to be important for us if we're going to get this done," Kennedy said. "[Fletcher, Whiters and Abraham] are a good start. We'd be in great shape if we'd had more scholarships to give. We only had two this year."

The school's administration is plainly committed, as evidenced by the "Pat's Cats" billboards around town. Billboards for Towson basketball?

"It develops an awareness and certainly makes a statement," Kennedy said. "I think it's great. I wish they had waited until I lost about 30 pounds."

Meanwhile, Towson is 2-6 this season and headed for another losing year in the Colonial Athletic Association.

"We have to keep as many fans as up as possible for this period of time," Kennedy said.

On a recent weeknight, a fleet College of Charleston team ripped the Tigers at the Towson Center, building a 20-point lead in the first half. Charleston is another "mid major" success, with nine straight 21-win seasons.

"They're a snapshot of where we want to be in three years," Kennedy said after the game. "That's the product we'll need to put on the floor. They've got mid-level to high-level players at every position. They're veterans and winners. That's where we want to be. And there's no reason why we can't get there."

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