Sports seasons are long, Major League Baseball runs from late March to early November, the NFL goes from September into February, the NBA from October into June, College basketball goes from early November until early April, the NHL…oh yeah that’s right, well you get the point. Because seasons are so long, coaches often break them down into segments. As an example, you might hear a head coach say ‘we were 3-1 during the first quarter of the season. Now we need to go 4-0 during the second quarter.’ It also helps them keep the team focused on the next game and not look to far ahead.
Members of the media often break the schedules down as well, but mainly because it gives us something to write or talk about. With that said, I am going to look at the first quarter of Towson’s men’s basketball season. The Tigers have played ten games, just about 1/3 of its 31 game schedule. All ten of those games in which the Tigers went 4-6 were on the road. Towson begins will play its first home game of the season on Saturday night against North Dakota State University, more on them later.
Jerrelle Benimon-Any talk of the Tiger’s success has to begin with Benimon. He has shown why Georgetown recruited him almost four years ago before he decided to transfer to Towson. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 17.1 and 11.3 respectfully. More than just his stats, he has been the heart of the team both offensively and defensively.
He has received praise from opposing coaches such as Fran Dunphy of Temple on Wednesday night, “He could be the toughest hardest working player we’ll face this year, “ Dunphy said after Benimon tallied 30 points (setting his career high for the 2nd time in three games) and pulled down 18 rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes in the Tigers loss to Temple. Dunphy commented on that as well, “He played the whole way; I was waiting for them to give him a rest. But if I’m Pat (Skerry) I probably wouldn’t take him out either.” When Georgetown coach John Thompson III was asked if Benimon’s knowledge of the Hoya offense could have been a factor in the Tigers playing so well against his team, Thompson responded, “He probably knows more about what we were doing than some of the guys in our locker room. He’s a very smart player.”
On the season, Benimon has six double/doubles, which ranks in the top ten in the country. Over the last three games, he has averaged 23.3 points and averaged over 15 rebounds per game over the last four contests. Twice so far this season Benimon has been named Co-Player of the Week in the CAA. After the monstrous outing at Temple, he is in good position to earn that honor again with a strong game against North Dakota State.
STRONG REBOUNDING- Coach Skerry has said he wants his teams to do three things well, defend the ball, rebound and take care of the ball, He believes that formula gives teams the best chance for success. Led by Benimon, the Tigers have out-rebounded their opponents by over eight rebounds a game on the season. They have not lost the rebounding battle in a game since the season opener at the College of Charleston. Graduate student Bilal Dixon is second on the team with 6.4 rebounds a game, and has had three games where he grabbed 10 or more boards. Timajh-Parker Rivera a freshman has given the Tigers some quality minutes this year on the front line. He is only averaging 15.6 minutes a game coming off the bench, but he has made the most of it by grabbing 3.4 rebounds a game in that time.
CONSISTENT DEFENSIVE EFFORT- It is perhaps the most vital attribute that Skerry mention as the key to his coaching philosophy. Last year’s one win team played hard on defense, they just did not have enogh talent to play well. When asked by Liz Clarke of the Washington Post how he explains a team that wins one game the previous season, can play Georgetown close the next season. Skerry’s answer was simply “The biggest thing is, I’ve got newer better players.” Sticking with the Georgetown game, the Tigers held the Hoyas to 29.2% shooting from the field and won the battle on the glass 38-32. “I think we can become a pretty good ballclub in our conference if we have that kind of commitment to defend and rebound on a nightly basis,” said Skerry in reference to his team’s performance against Georgetown. For the season Towson ranks 63rd in the country in field goal percent defense holding teams to a cumulative .388 percentage.
Towson has held six of the last eight opponents to under .40% shooting from the field. Only a couple very poor shooting performances on its end kept the Tigers from winning more than three of those eight games.
LEADERSHIP- This one is hard to quantify, but it is one of those things you know it when you see it, or can tell if it is missing. It sounds odd to say a team that has nine new players from last year’s roster would develop leaders quickly, but that seems to be the case with this squad. First, take under consideration that the triumvirate of Benimon, Dixon and Mike Burwell has a combined seven years of Big Ten playing experience. There will be no environment in which Towson plays this year where the Tigers will be intimidated. The results at Georgetown and Temple are prime examples. Burwell, Dixon and Benimon have played in big games, and will help their younger teammates learn and cope in such situations.
Neither Dixon nor Burwell scored in the game at Temple. If someone were to have told me that before the game, I would have said Towson was most likely in store for a 30-point loss. However, they didn’t force shots, played hard, and did their respective parts in keeping the offense moving. Burwell said earlier in the season nobody on the team is concerned about who gets the most points, they only care about winning. Despite some of his low scoring games, Skerry is impressed with how hard Burwell practices, “he’s practicing the right way, so I’m confident he will come around,” said Skerry in reference to what he sees of Burwell on a daily basis.
It is hard for a team’s returning scorer to be over shadowed. However, one could not blame Marcus Damas if he felt that way. Damas led the Tigers in scoring last year with 12 points a game. Benimon has gotten much of the publicity this year and rightfully so. However, Skerry is quick to tell you how important Damas is to this team, “Marcus is our biggest spirit player. He gives us a complete effort every night and has a motor that doesn’t stop.” This was never more so evident than in the loss to UMBC. Damas missed that game as he took a nasty face first fall at the very end of the Loyola game. He remained on the floor not moving for several minutes. He had to be helped off the floor and into the locker room by a couple teammates. He sat out most of the practices before the UMBC game, and just was not well enough to play. The UMBC loss is the one loss of the season where the Tigers were out worked and out played by a team that frankly is not as talented as they are.
PROMISING FRESHMAN-While the above three transfer-students are essential to the Tigers success this year. There are three freshmen getting regular playing time that are the core of Skerry’s first recruiting class. They will play a big part in the future success of the program. Jerome Hairston is the starting point guard that will be giving CAA opponents fits for the next four years. Hairston is a tenacious player on both ends of the floor, and as evidenced by two key steals in the Vermont victory is a playmaker. He has started since the first game of the season and is learning the game on the job. Just like any freshman, he will make mistakes and turnovers due to inexperience. However, as the late Al McGuire said many years ago, “the best thing about freshmen…is that they become sophomores.” However, Tiger fans will not have to wait until Hairston’s sophomore year to see some dynamic plays that will break the opposing teams back. He has already matured in not taking every open three pointer that he sees, to keeping the offense moving and being patient for a better look.
Parker-Rivera is getting about 15 minutes of playing time a game, but look for that to increase as the season moves on especially into the conference season. He is still learning the defensive assignments, but he has a natural rebounding instinct that has allowed him to hold his own under the boards. Parker-Rivera officially listed as a forward, has also filled in for Dixon at times this year in the five spot. The third freshman, who may be one of the most athletic Tigers, is Barrington Alston a 6’8” forward whose leaping ability will make him a threat in the Tigers transition game as he gets more experience and playing time. Alston was ranked as the third best high school player in the state of Delaware by ESPN.Com during his senior year.
Before the season began as I broke the schedule down into segments, I wrote and said on the air that I could see the Tigers finishing the ten game road stretch at 5-5. I did not anticipate them stumbling so bad and losing to UMBC, however they have recovered from that and played three good games against quality opponents. Skerry was particularly happy with the Vermont win as he said, “This is the type of game we’ll see on the road in our conference this year, so it was a good test.”
The next segment of games is a very small sample, which are the three remaining games before the conference season starts after the first of the year. North Dakota State presents the first obstacle of those three. The Bison bring a very strong 8-3 record into the Towson center. Their three loses, No. 1 ranked Indiana, a good (Wisconsin) Green-Bay team and Minnesota. After that comes the Tiger’s third cross-town rivalry game this month when Coppin State visits the Towson Center. Then the Tiger’s have their longest road trip (distance wise) of the season when they travel to Oregon State to wrap up the non-conference part of the season. A 2-1 performance in those games would leave the Tigers at 6-7 when they begin CAA play in January. Then the coaches and media will begin breaking down the remaining 18 games into segments, because, well that’s just what we do.
(PHOTOS COURTSEY OF TOWSON ATHLETICS)