Towson basketball looks to bright future despite disappointment of missing postseason

After record turnaround, Tigers have to sit home for CAA tournament due to past academic woes

March 09, 2013|By Childs Walker | The Baltimore Sun

It's a Thursday afternoon — five days after the most surprising team in all of Division I men's college basketball completed its season — and these guys aren't obliged to be in an otherwise empty gym, firing jump shots.

In fact, no one would blame the starters from this year's Towson basketball team if they wanted to get away from the game for a while. They just finished a remarkable resurrection, from 1-31 laughingstock to 18-13 and tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Now comes the painful part. They have to sit at home this weekend as their conference rivals vie for a trip to March Madness. This year's team is banned from postseason play because of the program's academic failings under a previous coach. None of these players were part of that version of Towson basketball. The penalty feels like a colossal injustice to them and Pat Skerry, the coach who righted a sinking ship.

Yet here they are, grinning their way through an informal workout, talking about how thrilled they would be if next season could start tomorrow.

"Team's so pumped about it," junior forward Marcus Damas says, "that we're supposed to be off right now and everybody's still working."

Skerry feels it as well. The apple-cheeked coach was up at 3:05 a.m. the day after Towson completed its season with a win over Hofstra, imagining strategies to make his offense more potent. The day after that, he convened his assistants to get them started scouting next year's opponents.

The players seem to love Skerry — who spends games barking like a madman in his thick Massachusetts accent but acts like a second dad off the court. Most had never heard of Towson growing up. They're here because of him and the vision of transformation he sold.

Damas talks of how the coach sculpted him from a project who couldn't shoot or dribble to "one of his warriors."

Highly recruited freshman Jerome Hairston recalls the way Skerry wooed him with candor rather than flattery. "Coach Skerry is the craziest guy I've ever played for," he says. "But he's the most loving guy off the court. … On the court, he'll cuss you out, go crazy on you. But as soon as you step off the court, he's like family again."

Bilal Dixon enjoyed Skerry so much at Providence that he left the Big East school to become a graduate student at Towson and use his last year of eligibility for the Tigers. "It was personal for me," Dixon says. "He's like a member of my family, like a godfather."

The program's transformation occurred off the court as well as on. With Skerry insisting on study hall attendance, the team posted a 2.94 GPA last semester, up from 2.29 in fall 2009, when Pat Kennedy was coach. Towson missed the postseason this year because its academic progress rate, the number the NCAA uses to measure a program's success in retaining and graduating players, fell well below the acceptable threshold of 900 in Kennedy's last two seasons.

Athletic director Mike Waddell says Towson has already secured a conditional NCAA waiver to compete in the postseason next year, provided the team's academic performance remains solid through this season.

"It takes guys who know there's a bigger picture than just their grades," Damas says. "It affects the team as well. Now it's natural. We have to go to study hall. It's something we have to do, and we know that. There's no rebuttal on that. It's something we need."

Record improvement

If you didn't catch the story unfolding at Towson this season, you're hardly alone. Mid-major programs rarely garner much attention unless they shock a Goliath in the NCAA tournament. But consider this: No Division I men's team has ever staged a larger one-year improvement than Towson did in 2012-13.

Towson basketball wasn't just lousy last season, when the Tigers set an all-time record by suffering its 41st straight loss. The program hadn't managed a winning record since 1996. Despite the hopes of university administrators, who believed a winning basketball team could invigorate campus life and alumni donations, the formula for success eluded coach after coach.

Skerry arrived in 2011, saying there was no reason for Towson to remain down, given its East Coast location, burgeoning academic reputation and the $75 million arena being built on campus. He had recruited big-time players as an assistant at Pittsburgh and Providence, but it was hard not to be skeptical, given Towson basketball's history.

That skepticism only deepened as Skerry managed just one victory in his first season as a head coach. No matter how much fire he breathed in practice or from the sideline, his guys were simply outmanned. "We were probably the worst team in the country," he says matter-of-factly.

Players got used to friends and loved ones asking why they had chosen this team with no reputation and a record made for mocking.

"Never have I been asked a question more than, 'Why Towson?'" says Hairston, who chose the Tigers over Virginia and Boston College.

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