Pat Skerry's energy and optimism is what attracted Mike Waddell when the Towson athletic director went looking for a new men's basketball coach last winter. It is what Marcus Damas noticed when other, bigger schools were recruiting him out of a junior college in the New York City suburbs last spring. It is what keeps Damas and his teammates distracted this season.
If not for their pit bull of a coach, stomping and squatting and shouting out directions during games, teaching and talking and trying to build the team's confidence back at practice, the Tigers might be focused on the fact that they hold the nation's longest Division I losing streak.
Going into Friday night's game against Vermont at Towson Center, Skerry's team is 0-11 in his first season, after a season in which the Tigers lost their last 19 under Pat Kennedy.
The record for consecutive losses by a Division I team is 34, by Sacramento State. The overall record is 51 straight by New Jersey Institute of Technology as it was transitioning from Division II to Division I.
"The games can be somewhat exasperating, but we're getting better daily at practice," Skerry said after walking through the Vermont scouting report with his team Wednesday at Towson Center . "We just don't have a lot of numbers right now and there is no substitute for that."
Sophomore forward Erique Gumbs, the only player who returned from last year's team, said the losing streak "is not on my mind when I'm out there playing, but after we're done playing, I sit there and think, 'Wow I haven't had a win in a while.' But this season is totally different, and I really look at it like it's a new slate. We make progress each time we step on the court."
Not that the difficult start that includes an average margin of defeat of nearly 25 points a game has come as a surprise to Skerry, who compares his current situation to others he inherited, including one as a 26-year-old head coach at Division III Curry College and another when he was an assistant on a new staff at Rhode Island.
"I was very keenly aware of what I was getting myself into," Skerry, now 41, said. "I knew exactly what the issues are. I'm able to draw a lot on those types of experiences and issues that we had short term. When I got to Rhode Island, we were coming off a six-win season and I think we were ranked 298th out of 318 teams. You kind of just get through it."
Just as Skerry "flipped the roster" at Curry, the current Towson team hardly resembles last year's group. Towson is the only team in the country to return just one player who earned a varsity letter last season and one of three, along with Boston College and Texas, to have no returning starters.
Guard RaShawn Polk, who was expected to carry the bulk of the scoring, was dismissed for breaking team rules. Kelvin Amayo, a guard from New Jersey who was expected to start as a freshman, failed to qualify academically. Two other projected starters transferred. Braxton Dupree, who came to Towson after struggling on the court at Maryland, left to play professionally in Israel.
It has led to Skerry starting a pair of freshmen in the backcourt, along with a frontcourt that consists of Gumbs, Damas and senior Robert Nwankwo, who was academically ineligible last season but leads the team in scoring (12.6 points a game) and rebounding (8.7).
"It's more upbeat, new energy, there's a lot more intensity, a lot more focused," Gumbs said. "We adopted a policy of hard work every day, and we're really sticking to it and that's really encouraging. We're on our way."
The Tigers have lost by single digits only once — to UMBC by four — but other games that have been competitive down the stretch often disintegrate amid of flurry of turnovers (Towson ranks last among 338 teams in assist-turnover ratio), missed free throws (52 percent, also last) and scoring (52.3, which is 336th).
"We start thinking that we've got to make a play or we've got to hit a home run," Skerry said. "We don't have home run hitters. We've just got to put the ball in play and do what we do and get over the hump. Once you learn to get over the hump once, it becomes easier to do it the second, third and fourth time. We're not there yet."
The hoops equivalent of potential cleanup hitters are currently at Towson, but not eligible yet after transferring from Big East schools. Jerrelle Benimon, a 6-7, 237-pound forward, came off the bench at Georgetown last season, and Mike Burwell, a 6-6-, 210-pound guard, played 50 games in two years at South Florida.
A recruiting class that is ranked sixth in the country amid mid-major-conference teams and is considered the best to date in the Colonial Athletic Association has made Skerry is hopeful that the foundation will be in place by the time Towson moves into its new arena in 2013-14.