For Towson basketball, there's strength in numbers but real questions, too

Over the summer, Pat Skerry devised a two-question survey for his Towson men’s basketball team. A psychology major at Tufts, he knew that if he quizzed the players himself, they’d tell him what he wanted to hear. So an assistant coach did the asking:

How many minutes per game do you expect to play this season?

How many shots per game do you expect to take this season?

The results reflected his Tigers’ confidence, and maybe Skerry’s biggest problem ahead of this much-anticipated season. In all, he told his team, there were twice as many expected shots and nearly twice as many expected minutes as in a normal Towson game.

“How do you impact winning, especially on a team that's deep?” he recalled telling his team during a meeting Monday. The Tigers could rely on as many as 11 players in their rotation this season. “Human nature is, everyone wants to play more, especially when you've worked hard and you've gotten better. But unfortunately, team games aren't always, ‘Just because you got better, you get more.’ ”

For it to be a season of success in Towson — the SECU Arena trophy case is still without a Colonial Athletic Association crown — it will be have to be a season of sacrifice. Talent is not a question. With two of their top players sidelined, the Tigers defeated Bucknell, the Patriot League favorite and an NCAA tournament team last March, in an exhibition last month. A win over seven-time reigning Canadian national champion Carleton highlighted a trip across the border this summer.

But of everything Skerry will ask of his team this season, most important will be subjugating what they want to what Towson needs.

“We believe that we have nine guys who could all start,” said senior guard Mike Morsell, a preseason second-team all-conference pick. “Guys that come off the bench are sacrificing, and they know that and we know that.”

The easiest way to protect all those expected minutes? Control the “controllables” — or else climb the world’s highest peak.

At the edge of Tigers practices this season is a VersaClimber machine. Commit a bad foul or a careless turnover, or fail to challenge a shot, and that’s 200 feet to climb at the end of practice. Early in the preseason, the distance added up, especially for the team’s younger players.

On one particularly bad day, a freshman had eight errors. Because that meant he had to cover 1,600 feet, and because every 200 feet can take about three minutes to complete, it didn’t take long to feel “like they were climbing Mount Everest,” Skerry said. He added: “It gets to you.”

“I think he wants everything more precise,” Morsell said. “He's a perfectionist.”

Even with some scaled-back schematics and the return of eight players who started at least once last season, there will be growing pains. Towson’s defense this season will start at the opposing baseline, a 40-minute, full-court, zone pressure that falls back after midcourt into the Tigers’ man-to-man look. Towson’s depth makes it possible; only execution will make it worthwhile.

After all, the Tigers went deep into their bench last year, too, Skerry said, but only because they had to. Some players were too inconsistent to remain on the court for very long.

“It's still like this puzzle where things got to fit the right way,” Skerry said. “One of the challenges of playing a lot of guys — it's better than having no options — … is we've got to keenly study who fits, where, when, how, some of those types of things.”

Is this the best team he’s had at Towson? He can’t say this early, nor would he want to. “I don’t like giving them a lot of sugar,” Skerry joked. At least the season’s start will give him some release. At one point Tuesday, he said he’d like another few months of preseason. At another, it seemed like parsing the positives and negatives from practice tape appealed to him about as much as tax law.

After Friday’s game at Old Dominion, a tough opponent in a crowded venue, he’ll be closer to answering his own questions about his own team.

“They know what the big goal is,” Skerry said. “They know what they want to get to. They believe they can get to it, and I believe they can get there, too, but it's like I tell them all the time: You don't get to take the elevator. You got to take the stairs.”

And if that doesn’t work, there’s the VersaClimber, too.

At a glance: Towson

Projected finish: Second of 10 in Colonial Athletic Association

Game to watch: Jan. 7 vs. College of Charleston. If this isn’t the on-paper game of the year in the CAA, it’s only because the Tigers and Cougars meet eight days earlier in South Carolina. Charleston is the overwhelming league favorite; no team has more preseason all-conference honorees (three), and Towson was the only other team in the preseason poll to receive first-place votes (two of 40). But the Tigers went 12-3 at home last year, handing the Cougars one of their four losses in league play at SECU Arena.

Best-case scenario: Coach Pat Skerry’s deepest Towson team yet gets through its nonconference schedule unscathed — Horizon League favorite Oakland might be the toughest test — before grabbing the program’s first-ever CAA championship and making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991.

Worst-case scenario: The troubles that, over the past four years, have kept one second-seeded and two third-seeded Tigers teams out of the CAA final resurface come tournament time.

Did you know: Senior guard Mike Morsell, who grew up in Prince George’s County, is not related to Maryland freshman guard Darryl Morsell, a Baltimore native. But he does have a Division I-caliber brother. Casey, a four-star junior guard at St. John’s College High (D.C.), received his first scholarship offer from Towson last year and has added others from Penn State, Virginia and more.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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