I had planned to write a quick recap of the non-conference portion of Towson’s basketball season. Then move onto a look ahead to CAA play, which begins on Wednesday night in Wilmington, NC for the Tigers. However, a strange and unexpected thing happened in Corvallis, Oregon Saturday night. Towson upset the 9-2 Beavers 67-66 in overtime. So bear with me as I touch on a range of topics here, and I will do my best to keep some semblance of order.
The win ended a four game losing streak that saw Towson play very well on the road at Georgetown and Temple and not so well at home against Coppin State. Sandwiched between those games was a home loss to a very good North Dakota State team. A game in which Benimon was very limited due to an ankle injury sustained three nights earlier against Temple.
Looking at the entire non-conference slate, the Tigers finished 5-8. Any way you look at it, that has to be considered a success, and to state the obvious, is a huge improvement on last year’s 0-12 record. However, a closer look at that 5-8 reveals a few things that bear looking at.
To start with, six of the losses came to teams with a combined win/loss record of 56-16 as of Saturday. Among those, are No. 15 ranked Georgetown and A-10 power Temple. In addition, Loyola of Maryland, Eastern Kentucky and North Dakota State are ranked in the Top 25 Collegeinsider.com poll. Only losses to 2-10 UMBC and 3-11 Coppin State stand out as “bad losses.”
What has to be made of the mixed results? It is clear that Towson has the talent and work ethic to play well against and beat any team on its schedule while at the same time perhaps looking past some not so highly regarded opponents. Seven of the Tiger’s regular eight-man rotation had not played together before this year, so perhaps they are still looking for the one or two leaders who make sure everyone is ready to play regardless of the opponent’s record or reputation.
The Tigers do have veteran leadership in junior transfers Jerrelle Benimon and Mike Burwell as well as graduate student Bilal Dixon. After the Coppin State loss, it would have been fair to question where the leadership and direction would come from among the players. Benimon has proven with his play on the court that he can lead with results and often is too unselfish with the ball in trying to keep everyone involved. He has said he feels like he can be a leader to the younger players on the team. Coming from the Georgetown program, he no doubt has had the opportunity to learn what it takes for a team to compete against the best in college basketball. In addition, his three best games of the year have been against Georgetown, Temple and most recently Oregon State. In the game against Oregon State, Benimon became the first Division I player this year to score 20 points and grab 20 rebounds in the same game. Against Temple, he set a career high in points with 30, to go with his 18 rebounds.
Dixon had the experience of 94 games in the Big East before he transferred from Providence. He has been a steady influence in the center of a Tiger’s defense that is leading the CAA in defensive field goal percentage holding opponents to .384 through the 13 games. Burwell leads the team in 3-pointers with 20 on the year.
Another upper classman and the only returning starter from last year is junior Marcus Damas. Damas hit the game winning 18-footer on Saturday with .02 left in overtime. Coach Skerry has said more than once this year that Damas is a key part of the team. He brings nonstop energy and effort to each game and isd is as Skerry calls him, the teams “biggest spirit player.”
The Tiges had several days off for the Christmas break between the loss to Coppin State and the game in Oregon. However, they did have a few practices in that time as well. Given the effort and determination they showed coming back from the deficit against the Beavers, it is apparent that the upper classmen must have gotten some message across to the team about the importance of a consistent effort as they prepare for conference play starting this week.
Along with the play and experience of the upperclassmen, a key to the Tigers’ continued improvement will be the play of freshman point guard Jerome Hairston. Hairston has learned on the job so to speak, as he opened the season for the Tigers as the starting point guard. The biggest area that Hairston has to improve on is taking care of the ball. Hairston currently has a .840 assis-to-turnover ratio. A ratio of at least 1.4 would be more in line with a point guard capable of being among the league leaders. Early on, Hairston showed a tendency to shoot before looking for the pass, but has shown much improvement in that area of late. According to Head Coach Pat Skerry, Hairston had one of his best outings of the year against the Beavers, in which he scored all nine of his points in the second half and committed only one turnover while playing a career high 36 minutes. Hairston had three assists to go along with a season high five rebounds.
It would not be surprising as the season progresses if Hairston, even as a freshman, emerges as a team leader. He told me earlier in the season he doesn’t like losing and will do whatever he can to keep his team from losing. The look of determination on his face when he said that left no doubt that he meant it.
There is no telling how important that comeback from 19 points down to Oregon State. will be later in the year. The Tigers were down 44-25 with less than 16 minutes to go before getting a quick spark from Junior Rafael Guthrie, who scored six quick points to cut the deficit and begin the Tigers’ comeback. Such a victory is something the players and coaching staff can call upon if they find themselves faced with such a deficit again. Having done it on the road against a PAC-12 team that will very likely be a factor in the conference will instill nothing but confidence.
CAA play begins this week, as Towson takes on University of North Carolina Wilmington. The Seahawks have not lost a home game this year (5-0) and have one of the better players in the league in Keith Rendleman. Rendleman is tied with Benimon in the CAA for sixth in scoring at 16.2, and he is third in the conference in rebounding behind leader Jamelle Hagins of Delaware and Benimon.
Saturday the Tigers will visit pre-season conference favorite Drexel in Philadelphia. Drexel (4-7) is off to a slower start than most figured, but they won their first home game of the year against a very good Davidson team right before the Christmas break.
-photo courtsey of Towson Athletics-