Towson sophomore Marcus Damas brought a crowd of students and alumni to their feet after dunking over three cheerleaders who playfully cowered under the basket at the Tigers' recent Black & Gold Jam.
The inaugural, fan-friendly event officially ushered in a new era for Towson basketball, which is looking to create more buzz for a program that has not had a winning record since the 1995-1996 season. First-year coach Pat Skerry has taken over for Pat Kennedy and has already brought a new energy to the Towson Center. Skerry's goal is to become a regular NCAA tournament team, especially with a new, palatial arena scheduled to open in 2013.
"We've got a lot to solve here and a lot to build, obviously," Skerry said. "We're trying to aggressively attack that and get better every day. We're young and new and that's OK. Guys are working and we're getting better."
Robert Nwankwo has returned to the team after redshirting last season because of his academic ineligibility. In 2009-10, Nwankwo averaged 9.9 points and was third in the Colonial Athletic Association with 8.9 rebounds per game. He was also named to the league's All-Defensive team with a league-best 3.1 blocks per game, better than VCU's Larry Sanders, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It's a young team, but we have a lot more energy than before," Nwankwo said. "I feel like in the past we did not show that type of motivation. Coach is emphasizing defense because with that we will be a better team. Our expectations are a lot better than last year."
Also returning is redshirt sophomore Erique Gumbs, who played in all 30 games, averaging 12.3 minutes. Gumbs had a field-goal percentage of 56.5 percent. Freshmen Jervon Pressley, Jamel Flash and Alex Giergen will also likely get quality minutes. Two other freshmen, Kris Walden and Deon Jones, started both exhibition games for the Tigers. And Damas will play a pivotal role.
Skerry has already endured one significant setback when his lone returning starter, RaShawn Polk, was suspended indefinitely after being charged with burglary, assault and destruction of property just weeks before the season.
Skerry is a head coach for the first time after spending 19 years as an assistant and top recruiter, including last season at Pittsburgh, which won the Big East's regular season title by finishing 28-6. His first year is likely to be challenging with no returning starters from last year's 4-26 team and two freshmen running the back court.
After opening with several challenging games, including road trips to Kansas and Michigan, the Tigers start the arduous CAA schedule at home against George Mason on Dec. 3.
"We have a challenging schedule," Skerry said. "The good thing is we go to some of these places early and it will be as tough of an environment as they'll ever face. I like our chemistry and our work ethic. We're making a lot of mistakes but we're playing very hard. We can correct those things."
Fang Mitchell enters his 26th season as the Eagles' coach. He has 395 wins at Coppin State and 622 wins in 33 years all time.
The Eagles will be led by senior Michael Harper, who made the All-MEAC second team last season after averaging 15.2 points. He also led the conference in free-throw percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage.
Coppin State has the firepower to run with anyone in the conference after leading the MEAC in scoring last season by averaging 72.5 points. Also returning for the Eagles are Akeem Ellis (12.2 points per game), Tony Gallo (11.4) and former Loch Raven standout Jordan Lee (10.4). Antonio Williams also returns after averaging 6.4 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Coppin State opens at home against Cheyney on Nov. 11. The Eagles then play a brutal stretch where they play road games against Loyola, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Purdue.
Loyola is expected to climb near the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season with the return of Shane Walker and Erik Etherly. Coach Jimmy Patsos, now in his eighth season, is confident the team has enough depth to stay near the top of the standings.
Both Walker and Etherly were named to the All-MAAC preseason second team. The Greyhounds were picked to finish third — the highest preseason ranking since the 2007-2008 season — behind Iona and Fairfield. Loyola's depth should be a key factor in improving from last season's fifth-place finish with a 10-8 record.
Walker, who played his freshman season at Maryland, emerged as one of the Greyhounds' top players last season, averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds. He also blocked 47 shots and moved into third all-time in that statistic at Loyola.