Two years ago during the 2011-12 season, I covered many of Towson’s basketball games, meaning I witnessed a loss almost every night. I had a courtside view along with one other faithful reporter Mat Schlissel of TowsonTigers.com. Many nights it was just the two of us who watched from press row at a cold and lifeless Towson Center, as a team with only four scholarship players finished 1-31. Also some nights we weren’t outnumbered by too many fans in the stands either. A fact that isn’t lost on Head Coach Pat Skerry, saying, “Two years ago we weren’t giving away seats, we were giving away sections.”
The Tigers are a commanding 13-1 in their new home SECU Arena
Fast forward two years, to this past Monday night. Mat and I still had seats next to each other. However, this time those seats were in the beautiful new SECU Arena. And, we had been bumped from our courtside seats in favor of the national television crew from NBCSports Network. Also this time we were only two of 29 media members covering the game.
Still more differences, this time a crowd of over 4000 packed the new home of the Tigers with an energy that I have not witnessed in three seasons covering the team. Most importantly among those 4,000 fans were the Towson students. In those games at the Towson Center many nights, there was hardly what you could call a student section. For most of this year, the students have been out in force, filling both sections under each basket, along with the energy generating Towson pep band. Season ticket holders, alumni and just plain fans often take their cue from the student section. If the students are into it, they naturally join along.
The excitement was in large part due to the opponent. The University of Delaware came in with an unblemished 11-0 record in Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play. The Blue Hens occupied the first place spot that Towson had been picked for in the preseason poll. In the first matchup of the season in Newark last month, Delaware had a similar type crowd on hand and beat the Tigers 83-76 taking control of the 1st place in the league.
To see where the Towson program has come In less than two years is remarkable. It began with the arrival of Skerry in the spring of 2011. He found himself with a shorthanded team during his first season, yet it didn’t affect his approach to each game. The Tigers played hard, they just didn’t have the talent. Well they had talent, but it was sitting on the bench in the form of transfers Jerrelle Benimon and Mike Burwell.
When Benimon and Burwell along with JUCO transfer Rafriel Guthrie became eligible to play last year, the Tigers turned in the well documented record breaking season in which they set an NCAA record for biggest turnaround by finishing 18-13. However, the joy of that success was tempered a bit as the Tigers knew going into the season they would not be eligible for any post-season play, due to APR issues prior to Skerry’s arrival.
This year came with many expectations, Benimon was voted the pre-season Player of the Year in the conference, and as mentioned the Tigers were voted the pre-season favorite to win the league. They had gone from being the hunter to the hunted, and as Skerry has referenced a few times this year, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on anyone this season.
So after 11 conference games the scene was set for Monday night, a win by Delaware would have clinched the CAA title for them and assured them not only of the No. 1 seed when the tournament starts in Baltimore in just over two weeks, but also assured them of a NIT bid should they fail to win the conference tournament.
With the win the Tigers still have an outside shot at winning the regular season title, should Delaware lose at least two of its remaining four games. While the regular season title may still be a long shot for Towson, the win did a couple of things that should bring even more excitement to the tournament.
Most importantly it can be argued, the Tigers regained some of their swagger in the league. Two losses to the Blue Hens might have taken some of the anticipation out of the tournament. The Tigers didn’t just win, they dominated Delaware in all phases of the game, and showed the form that garnered them the pre-season ranking.
Should the Tigers and Blue Hens meet in the tournament, it will most likely come in the final, as it stands now they will go in as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. So there would be the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line. With the game being played in Baltimore at First Mariner Arena, Towson should be able to have the largest fan support of the nine teams. However, the Delaware fan base travels very well, and will no doubt have several bus loads of students and fans make the just over one hour drive from Newark.
Player Of The Year Candidate Benimon outplayed UD Candidate Saddler on Monday night.-Photo Credit Towson Athletics
Both teams have valid player of the year candidates, Towson with Benimon and Delaware with its all time leading scorer Devon Saddler. The two schools are a natural rival. In addition to being the closest in proximity of any CAA schools, the two have very successful football programs and have had some classic matchups on the football field.
Both teams have some work to do the final ten days of the regular season to avoid any slip-ups and both coaches will tell you the next game is the only one they are worried about. The next game for Towson is Thursday night in Boston as they face Northeastern. Skerry showed he is not looking past this game, “I told the team (in the locker room after the Delaware game) I like to leave them with little pleasantries. But nobody in this room has beaten Northeastern, so we’ve got a major game there Thursday.”
Towson stays on the road after the Northeastern game to play at Hofstra on Saturday. They return home only long enough to do laundry attend a class or two and head to James Madison for the penultimate game on Wednesday the 25th.
The regular season will close out against William and Mary on Saturday March 1st at SECU, and I know this, Mat and I will be sitting side by side, again in the upper concourse to make room for another TV crew, a fact that neither of us mind as we think back to those cold nights in an empty Towson Center, and realize how far this program and team has come.