The Towson men's basketball team made history last year with the most dramatic Division I turnaround ever, which was quite a testament to the job second-year coach Pat Skerry did with a program that was not eligible for postseason play because of academic sanctions.
The Tigers went from a 1-31 record in Skerry's first season as a head coach at this level to 18 victories and a second-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2012-13, which put Towson back on the basketball map and transformed a long-time conference also-ran into the consensus favorite to win this season's CAA title.
So these should be heady times for a once-beleaguered program that is about to unveil its new arena, but Skerry isn't walking on sunshine just yet.
"Being picked first, that and two dollars gets you a bet at the racetrack,'' Skerry said at Tuesday's CAA basketball media day at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, "so we've got to be ready to play when the ball goes up."
Indeed, new-found credibility is a wonderful thing and, quite often, a two-edged sword. Just ask the Orioles, who also completed a dynamic turnaround a season ago and entered 2013 facing real expectations for the first time in more than a decade. They found out this year that trying to live up to those expectations — even under favorable conditions — is a tricky business.
Skerry came to Towson to build a team worthy of its brand-new SECU Arena, and he apparently has succeeded on a very short timetable. The Tigers return four starters from last year's 18-13 squad, which rebounded from a slow start to win 14 of its last 19 games.
Now comes the challenge of defending a title you haven't won yet.
"It's a really good thing program-wise,'' Skerry said. "It's kind of like, 'Be careful what you wish for,' but based on where we were, I know that's why I wanted to come to Towson and why we recruited guys, because we want to be playing meaningful basketball games. We've got a chance to do that. Being picked first [in October] doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot in March, but we're embracing those expectations."
And why not? Everything that Towson has done during the transition period from the disappointing Pat Kennedy era to the opening of the new basketball facility has been about changing the perception of the program. Skerry welcomes the challenge, but he concedes that it comes with a price.
"You sleep less,'' he said with a smile, "but it's what you signed up for. We're going to have a lot of meaningful games, and we better have learned quickly on the fly, because it's not a forgiving conference."
The Tigers proved last year that they know how to win. They pulled off a big overtime upset at Oregon State and won three other overtime games, including one at George Mason that was part of a season-ending 8-1 run. They would have entered the CAA tournament on a terrific roll, but for the low Academic Performance Rating (APR) that caused them to be ruled ineligible for postseason play eight months earlier.
This year's team brings back all of last year's frontline talent plus sharp-shooting transfer Four McGlynn from Vermont. If there's any question left to be answered, it is whether those returning stars will be as hungry as they were coming off a single-win season. Skerry won't know the answer to that for a while, but he doesn't seem too worried.
"They've worked incredibly hard,'' he said. "I think, for us, it's not just going to be that hunger. It's honoring the process. Are we doing everything we're supposed to do? Are we being the best teammates we can be? Are we unified? All the little things."
The Tigers will start to answer those questions Thursday with the first of two exhibition games, and they open their non-conference season against Navy on Nov. 8. It'll be a while longer before anyone finds out just how well they'll handle the weight of their status as the team to beat in the CAA.
"With expectations, you have to have a heightened sense of responsibility,'' Skerry said. "If you're picked first and you don't finish first, you didn't meet expectations. That's the deal. But you do want that, because you want it to mean something to your staff, your program, your administration, your student body, your alums, and I want it to be that way every year and I think we're on the verge of doing that."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.