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.
Etherly, who started his college career at Northeastern, averaged 10.8 points, finishing in double figures in the season's final 11 games. Also returning is Dylon Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons), who started 28 games, and Anthony Winbush, who had a medical redshirt season last year and scored seven of the first 14 points in a preseason game against Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Sophomore guard Justin Drummond also is back after earning MAAC All-Rookie honors. He averaged 9.8 points in 21 games last year.
The Greyhounds open on the road at Wake Forest on Nov. 11.
Expectations are as high as ever at Morgan State after last season's disappointing fourth-place finish in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Coach Todd Bozeman has already called this year's squad "the most talented team top to bottom." The Bears are the preseason favorite to win the MEAC with the return of 86 percent of their scoring and 68 percent of their rebounding.
Morgan State will be led by all-conference selections Kevin Thompson (Walbrook) and DeWayne Jackson. Thompson averaged 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. Jackson thrived at small forward, averaging 14.5 points and 4.6 rebounds.
The Bears also added controversial Iowa transfer Anthony Hubbard — a 26-year-old guard who served nearly four years in prison for robbery — because he wanted to be closer to his native Virginia.
Aric Brooks (St. Frances) returns and will be an efficient complement to Thompson in the front court. Ian Chiles, a 7-foot-2 center, is expected to make a bigger contribution this season. Larry Bastfield (Towson Catholic) will be another impact player after starting all 31 games last season. Ameer Ali and Justin Black will also get quality minutes and add to the team's exceptional depth.
Freshmen Shaquille Duncan is expected to make an immediate impact and so is the coach's son, Blake Bozeman, who could be pushing for a starting spot in the backcourt before the season is over. Thair Heath, a Los Angeles native, transferred from San Bernadino Community College and also could be an impact player.
Mount St. Mary's
Mount St. Mary's was picked to finish sixth in the 12-team Northeast Conference after ending last season at 9-9 in the league and 11-21 overall.
Returning is junior guard Lamar Trice, who was named the Northeast Conference's Most Improved Player last season after leading the team with 13.5 points per game. Junior Raven Barber also is back after starting 28 of 30 games and averaging 7.3 points. He led the Mountaineers in field-goal percentage at 63.2 percent.
Sophomore Julian Norfleet started 31 of 32 games and finished with 9.3 points per game.
The Mountaineers got bad news just prior to the season when fifth-year senior and projected starter Pierre Brown withdrew from school for the fall semester because of "personal reasons." Brown missed all of last season with a foot injury.
Mount St. Mary's is one of two teams in the NEC to finish with a .500 or better record in the conference in each of the past six seasons. The Mountaineers open Friday at No. 22 Marquette.
DeChellis will have one of the youngest teams in the nation when Navy opens the season Nov. 11 at Longwood. The Midshipmen were picked seventh in the Patriot League preseason poll. Navy has the second-most freshmen in the country with 10 behind Air Force (11).
Navy will be led by senior captain Jordan Sugars, who averaged 16 points last season and was named to the preseason first-team All-Patriot League squad. Sugars needs 11 rebounds to become the ninth player in school history with 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. He has scored in double-digits in 25 of his past 26 games.
Sophomore J.J. Avila returns after being named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year. The 6-7, 246-pound forward was one of just four freshmen nationally to average 10 points, five rebounds per game and two assists a year ago. Avilia finished the season averaging 11.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
The Midshipmen also will get quality minutes from Donya Jackson, a 6-3, 212-pound freshman guard from Calvert Hall, where he was a two-time Baltimore Catholic League Defensive Player of the Year. In 2010, Jackson led the Cardinals to their first league title since 1997. Prior to Navy, Jackson spent a year at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, where he averaged 22.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.1 steals.
The Retrievers are looking to bounce back from last season's 5-25 campaign with the return of one of the America East's most dominant players in senior guard Chris De La Rosa .
UMBC, which was 4-12 in the league, is picked to finish seventh, along with Hartford, in the preseason coaches' poll. For the fifth straight year, Boston University is the preseason favorite.
De La Rosa is the league's top returning scorer at 15.5 points per game. He also led the conference in assists with six per game and ranked second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.13) and minutes played (35.8).
Freshmen Joey Getz and post Nate Basalyga could get significant playing time. Getz had 15 points and six assists in UMBC's 73-51 victory over The College of New Jersey in a recent exhibition game. Sophomore forward Chase Plummer, who averaged 6.7 points last season, and junior forward Adrian Satchell should also play pivotal roles for UMBC.
Junior guard Brian Neller, who had a team-high 51 3-point field goals, is UMBC's top outside threat.
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is looking to improve on last season's 10th place finish in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
The Hawks (9-22 overall, 5-11 MEAC) will be led by Hillary Haley, who was named to the preseason All-MEAC second team. Haley led the team in scoring (16.2 points per game) last year and will have to have a big season as he is just one of four returnees.
Tyler Hines also returns after averaging a team-high 7.5 rebounds to go with 8.7 points per game. Mark Robertson is also back after scoring 4.1 points per game and earning a starting role with his stellar defensive play. The final returnee is Louis Bell, who averaged 3.9 points and had 24 assists.
Newcomers include Olatunji Kosile and Pina Guillaume, a 6-9 forward from Blinn Community College. Guillaume, who also previously played at Binghamton, could get quality minutes.
UMES was predicted to finish 12th in the 13-team league in the preseason coaches' poll. The Hawks play a tough non-conference schedule with early-season games at George Washington, Tulane, Rice and Kansas State.