A year after exceeding expectations, Towson University men’s basketball team will now have to live up to expectations.
The Tigers were voted No. 1 in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) preseason-poll by members of the media and sports information directors. After 15 non conference games (9-6) the Tigers will finally get a chance to prove that ranking was justified as the CAA conference portion of the season begins Saturday when Towson hosts North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW 6-11) at SECU arena.
“We were picked first, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. We want to finish first,” said Head Coach Pat Skerry when asked to assess the Tigers chances as they head into conference play. ‘If we do what we’re capable of, we’ll be right where we want to be, added Skerry.
Towson’s nine non-conference wins are the most by Towson as a Division I team, and the most the Tigers have won on any level since they won 13 as a Division II school in the 1977-78 season. The 9 wins have come against afairly strong nonconference road slate. Towson played at Villanova, Kansas, Oregon State, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin, which currently has a 26 game home winning streak. The six road losses came to teams that were a combined 30-2 at home at one point.
Skerry acknowledged the tough road tests and how his players felt about the record at this point, “I scheduled a challenging schedule, and we have guys who want to win at a high level and can win at a high level, so I think they wanted to be a little better than 9-6. So that shows they have embraced the expectations.”
While Towson had its road struggles (1-6), the new SECU arena quickly became a home court advantage. The Tigers opened up with three early wins at the new facility, including a thrilling win over Temple before a near sell-out crowd. Towson finished the non CAA portion of the season with an 8-0 record at home. Dating back to last year, the Tigers have won 12 straight home games, which is the 18th best streak in the nation.
Leading the Tigers as expected in its nine wins has been Senior Jerrelle Benimon. Voted the Pre-Season Player of the Year in the CAA Benimon has picked up where he left off last year. He’s averaging a double/double with 17.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And, actually he’s on a bit of a tear the past five games putting up 20.2 points and 13. 6 rebounds during that stretch. Benimon has scored in double figures every game except for the season opener against Navy, and is tied for 3rd in the country with nine double-doubles and is one of only five players in the nation as of January 6th with a triple double this year. He accomplished the feat against Central Penn College in December with 17 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
While Benimon gets the most attention from opposing teams, and the NBA scouts that have been attendance at several games this year, the Tigers have actually had a very balanced scoring attack. Three starters are averaging double figures, with a fourth Mike Burwell practically there with 9.2 points per game. In addition Rafriel Guthrie is contributing 10.9 points a game coming off the bench.
Scoring has not been a problem for Towson this year. Unlike last year where they pretty much counted on Benimon to lead the way in scoring most nights. with then Junior Marcus Damas contributing 11 points a game, this year’s squad is getting help from many directions. Currently the Tigers are second among CAA teams in FG% at .458 and second in points per game at 73.7.
Early last year the Tigers struggled to find a deep and balanced scoring attack. This year they have been aided greatly by the eligibility of Vermont transfer Four McGlynn. McGlynn, a sophomore is averaging 13.3 points over the last nine games. He moved into the starting lineup in the 6th game of the year following the suspension and subsequent dismissal of point guard Jerome Hairston. McGlynn is hitting over .43% of his three-point attempt, and has connected on at least two per game in eight of the Tigers last nine contests. One of McGlynn’s biggest assets is taking care of the ball, he has just two turnovers in the last five games.
While McGlynn has given the Tigers the outside threat they need to keep teams from concentrating solely on Bennimon, the play of Senior Mike Burwell, has been vital in the Tigers maintaining a strong team chemistry during the transition of playing without Hairston. Burwell played almost exclusively at the two-guard spot last year. With McGlynn moving into the lineup at the two, point-guard duties were shifted to Burwell.
After some early adjustment, Burwell has flourished in the role. “It has taken time to learn where everyone likes to get the ball. But I am getting more comfortable. I love having the ball in my hands,” Burwell said about the shift of positions. It has shown in both his and the teams numbers. Burwell has 15 assists with just four turnovers in the teams last 3 games. Burwell distributed a career high nine assists in the win over New Hampshire last week.
Taking on the role of point guard hasn’t hurt Burwell’s offensive and defensive roles, quite the opposite. Over the past four games he is averaging 13.7 points while shooting .500 from the field and collected a career high nine rebounds against Coppin State. Burwell is simply playing the best basketball of his Towson career just as the Tigers head into the conference season.
One of the most important things that Burwell has to do, is not turning the ball over and make sure the Tigers get opportunities to score. Turnovers have been a constant thorn in the teams losses. The Tigers are averaging 15.6 turnovers in its losses versus only 12.8 in its wins. Burwell is leading the team in assist to turnover ratio, averaging 1.18 assist to every turnover.
As the veteran on this team, in his third year as a Tiger, Damas has improved each season in his all around play. This year he is the teams second biggest three-point threat behind McGlynn, hitting on .400 of his attempts from beyond the arc, compared to just .300 last year. In addition Damas often draws the assignment of guarding the best perimeter player on the opposing team. This year he has done that while decreasing his fouls per game by almost half a foul per game.
Just as he did last year, senior guard Guthrie provides an instant spark coming off the bench. Guthrie provides constant defensive pressure on the opponents, and he along with Benimon have benefited the most from the increased enforcement of hand checking by the defense. In just 23 minutes per game, Guthrie is averaging over five trips to the charity-stripe. One area he could really help the team is by improving on his .600 shooting from there.
Timajh Parker-Rivera has stepped into the starting lineup replacing graduated Bilal Dixon and done very nicely. His size and strength inside will be more of a factor in the CAA conference than it was against some of the bigger lineups the Tigers saw out of conference. Getting over 22 minutes per game while sharing duties with freshman Walter Davis, Parker-Rivera puts up 4.8 points (but has scored 10 or more in three of the last five games) while grabbing almost five rebounds per game. He is a very high percentage shooter inside, hitting on 48% of his FG attempts.
Foster along with fellow freshman John Davis have provided the Tigers with what looks to be two very impressive front court players in the years to come. Foster makes the most of his time, in just his 14 minutes per game, he is averaging 4.3 rebounds and his 15 blocked shots is only one behind Parker-Rivera for second on the team.
Davis played some strong minutes early in the season, highlighted by nine point eight rebound performance in just 18 minutes of action in his home town of Philadelphia in the Tigers loss to Villanova. Davis came down with Mononucleosis after the North Dakota State game, and will be sidelined until at least February 1st. Getting him back for the last month of the season would be very important to the Tigers, who are already down one anticipated starter with the departure of Hairston.
While the 9-6 record may not be getting the national headlines that the Tigers received last year when they had the largest single season turnaround in NCAA history, it should not be forgotten that it is much better than the 5-8 record the Tigers had last year prior to CAA play. This is the blessings and curse of high expectations, but as Skerry said the team has embraced them, and has even higher expectations of themselves, which include a conference championship and a run at the NCAA tournament in March.
Saturday will be the first of 16 contests, that lead up to the CAA Tournament to be held in Baltimore in March. After having to sit out last year’s tournament with APR problems from 3 years ago, the Tigers will be very anxious to see how they match up against those expectations.