Prior to one of the final practices before the start of the 2013-14 season, Towson basketball Head Coach Pat Skerry, stood at midcouort smiling and greeting his players as they came out to warm-up. Skerry gave many of them a fist bump or pat on the back. There is just cause for Skerry to be smiling as he looked over this group of players. For the firt time ever Towson had recently been ranked No. 1 in the CAA Coaches/Media Preseason poll. “Well, be careful what you ask for,” Skerry said recently. When asked how he will prepares the team to reach the high expectations of this season, Skerry continues, “It’s about honoring the process. Continuing to do the daily things, that you need to do as a team.” Back to practice a few minutes after the start, during a five on five full court scrimmage, Skerry was backing up those words, as he called out players for not being in position defensively, or not running the proper offensive set. There will be no resting on last seasons accomplishments. “We’ll get everyone’s best shot each night. We’ve gone from being the hunter to being the hunted,” added Skerry.
It’s been well documented everything that the Tigers achieved last season. The team finished tied for 2nd in the CAA with a 13-5 conference record. An overall record of 18-13 enabled Towson to set the NCAA record for the largest one season turnaround of 17.5 games. This followed the 1-31 campaign in coach Pat Skerry’s first season. A record that unfortunately will follow him on his coaching resume, however for all intents and purposes should be accredited to the previous coaching staff.
Towson returns four starters from last year’s team-including CAA Player of the Year, Senior Jerrelle Benimon, who was recently voted Pre Season Player of The Year by the CAA coaches and media. Benimon comes off an impressive season that saw him finish second in the nation in double/doubles while accumulating 17.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. If that wasn’t impressive enough Skerry says Benimon is even better this year than last, “He’s got more range on his shot, he has really improved his 3 point shot. We also plan to use him at back-up point guard as well.” When a reporter chided Skerry for not being serious, he said he absolutely was, “We’ve got to get Jerome (Hairston) some help there, and Jerrelle handled the ball a lot for us last year. Don’t get me wrong, he still has to rebound. That has to be first,” Skerry said with a smile. As if all that wasn’t worry enough for Tiger opponents, Benimon is visibly bigger and appears stronger than last year.
While Benimon is expected to lead the team in scoring again, there are plenty of other Tigers who are capable of carrying the team on any given night. Senior Marcus Damas is coming off a season in which he scored 11.5 points per game, Damas also averaged double figures as a Sophomore in the 1-31 season, scoring 12.5 per night. Damas is capable of hitting threes, as well as driving to the basket and finishing strong. He is one of the strongest Tigers in finishing on a fast break.
Senior shooting guard Mike Burwell finished just shy of averaging double figures last year ringing up 9.0 points per game. Burwell led the Tigers with 47 three-pointers in 2012-13 He was considered the Tigers biggest threat from long range, and should improve on his percentage this year. Experiences in a big time conference were two elements that both Burwell and Benimon brought to the Tigers. Transferring from South Florida and Georgetown respectively the duo provided the Tigers with players who were not intimated playing against top level Division I players.
Skerry mentioned needing to get point guard Jerome Hairstonsome help and that wasn’t any reflection of his accomplishments or ability. It’s just that too often last year he was the only viable option for bringing the ball up the court. A big task to ask of a freshman who started 30 of 31 games last year. As point guard Hairston was third on the team in scoring tallying 9.9 points per night. He struggled a bit early in the season with his assist to turnover ratio, but made strides in that area toward the end of the year.
Sophomore Timajh Parker-Rivera is expected to fill the starting center spot vacated by Bilal Dixon who graduated after one year at Towson. Dixon’s presence in the paint and his 7.3 rebounds per game will be a tough void to fill. However, Rivera saw action in all 31 games and logged over 15 minutes per contests as a freshman. Rivera showed a bit of what he might be capable of this summer when the Tigers took a trip to Canada and played four games against National Canadian teams that would be equal to college level teams in the US. Rivera averaged 10.5 points and 10.7 rebounds in those four games. Rivera worked hard during the summer in the Tigers conditioning program and has added weight and strength to go along with his tremendous athletic ability. He certainly could be a player that catches opponents by surprise if they just look at his numbers from last year.
The Tigers will be much deeper this year than they were last year when they only had an eight man rotation. Coming off the bench for the Tigers will be invaluable sixth man senior Rafriel Guthrie. Guthrie averaged over 20 minutes per game last year playing in all 31 after transferring from College of Southern Idaho junior college. Guthrie played high school basketball in Washington, DC averaging 28.8 points per game as senior at Cardozo H.S. Guthrie exhibited this same scoring prowess in the Tigers final exhibition game by scoring 32 points against Mansfield last week. Guthrie who is known for his fierce drives to the basket went to the foul line 18 times and converted 14 of them. He could be one of the biggest beneficiaries on the team of the rule change in college that prohibits hand checking. Guthrie is often called upon to up the Tiger’s defensive pressure when he comes into a game, and was second on the Tigers in steals with 26 to go along with his 8.1 points per game.
Depth in the back court will definitely be one of the Tiger’s strongest areas this year. Sophomore transfer Four McGlynn will make his much anticipated debut after sitting out his year as a transfer. Those that got to see McGlynn practice last year know he has seemingly unlimited range on his 3-point shot, and makes them with astonishing frequency. McGlynn accumulated all kinds of accolades and impressive stats during his freshman year at Vermont, where he was named the America East Rookie of the Year. McGlynn led the Catamounts in scoring, even though he came off the bench in all 36 of the tams games. He was the only player in the nation to accomplish that feat. His threat of hitting the 3 pointer when he’s in the game should, help ease some of attention Benimon will get on the inside.
Four other Tigers could very well end up getting regular playing time, meaning the Tigers could go as many as 10 deep on some nights. Two players who were going to be counted on as Freshman last year 6’8” Forward Barrington Alston and 6’5” Guard Marquis Marshall ended up being redshirted. They both return with another year of the weight and conditioning program under them, and will play as red shirt Freshman with four years of eligibility left.
The final returner is Junior Jamel Flash a 6’10” Forward/Center who Skerry says will definitely play this year as opposed to his first two years when he never averaged more than five minutes a game. Flash has perhaps transformed himself more than any other Tiger in the weight room. He will play this year at 220 lbs up over 30 pounds since his freshman year.
Success on the court usually leads to success off the court in other areas as well such as recruiting. The higher level of player that Towson is able to recruit began last year with the incoming class of Hairston, Marshall and Alston. In addition, the transfers of Benimon, Burwell, Guthrie and McGlynn all were an indication of the tireless efforts of Skerry and his assistants. Each one of those players took a leap of faith committing to Towson considering the past history, but Skerry sold them on what he had planned for this team.
The two true freshman on this year’s team, continue that high level recruit trend. Johnny Davis at 6’5” 215 pound is an all Catholic League player from Philadelphia. Skerry has said Davis will need to show some patience as he will be playing behind Benimon and Damas. However once he gets on the court Davis makes the most of his minutes. During the two exhibition games Davis totaled 15 points and 14 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Skerry said Davis has gone up against Benimon every day in practice and gives him all he can handle. Joining Davis in adding depth to the Front Court is 6’8” 230 Forward/Center Walter Foster from Atlanta Georgia. Both Davis and Foster will have to learn to play defense at the level Skerry expects in order to gain the playing time the Tigers will need from them.
The depth of this Tiger team could come in handy early in the year while teams are adjusting to the new hand check rule. Towson did bring in actual officials to call some of the early practices in order to give an indication of what teams will see this year when the ball goes up for real.
One thing everyone in Baltimore and the CAA will see is a team that has completely transformed its identity from the one of the worst teams in the country, to a team that is predicted to win it’s league title and compete for a berth in the NCAA tournament in March.
Not taking anything away from Skerry or the players, but the biggest (literally and perhaps most important) addition this year won’t ever score a point or grab a rebound for the Tigers. But the brand new SECU Arena will be the envy of every CAA team that visits this year. The 5200 seat arena has hosted some exhibition games and other events over the summer, but will make its official Tiger debut on Friday night against Navy. The arena is so spectacular that the referees who worked the Mansfield game commented to members of the media before the game, that the arena was unbelievable. It’s equipped with every modern feature you’d expect to see in an arena, including a nearly 50 foot long scoreboard/video screen hung over center court. Among the seating choices are 340 club seats, 104 courtside seats and 4 private boxes.
Below is the complete results of the CAA Pre-Season poll. I’ll have an in-depth look at the new CAA prior to the conference season. But the big changes this season are the departures of Old Dominion, Georgia State and George Mason. The College of Charleston joins the league as the 9th team. They were the Southern Conference champions last year and won 24 games.
Coaches/Media 2013-14 Pre-Season CAA Poll
3-College of Charleston
5-William & Mary
-photos courtsey of Towson University-