By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
2:54 PM EST, March 9, 2013
It's a Thursday afternoon — five days after the most surprising team in all of Division I men's college basketball completed its season — and these guys aren't obliged to be in an otherwise empty gym, firing jump shots.
In fact, no one would blame the starters from this year's Towson basketball team if they wanted to get away from the game for a while. They just finished a remarkable resurrection, from 1-31 laughingstock to 18-13 and tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Now comes the painful part. They have to sit at home this weekend as their conference rivals vie for a trip to March Madness. This year's team is banned from postseason play because of the program's academic failings under a previous coach. None of these players were part of that version of Towson basketball. The penalty feels like a colossal injustice to them and Pat Skerry, the coach who righted a sinking ship.
Yet here they are, grinning their way through an informal workout, talking about how thrilled they would be if next season could start tomorrow.
"Team's so pumped about it," junior forward Marcus Damas says, "that we're supposed to be off right now and everybody's still working."
Skerry feels it as well. The apple-cheeked coach was up at 3:05 a.m. the day after Towson completed its season with a win over Hofstra, imagining strategies to make his offense more potent. The day after that, he convened his assistants to get them started scouting next year's opponents.
The players seem to love Skerry — who spends games barking like a madman in his thick Massachusetts accent but acts like a second dad off the court. Most had never heard of Towson growing up. They're here because of him and the vision of transformation he sold.
Damas talks of how the coach sculpted him from a project who couldn't shoot or dribble to "one of his warriors."
Highly recruited freshman Jerome Hairston recalls the way Skerry wooed him with candor rather than flattery. "Coach Skerry is the craziest guy I've ever played for," he says. "But he's the most loving guy off the court. … On the court, he'll cuss you out, go crazy on you. But as soon as you step off the court, he's like family again."
Bilal Dixon enjoyed Skerry so much at Providence that he left the Big East school to become a graduate student at Towson and use his last year of eligibility for the Tigers. "It was personal for me," Dixon says. "He's like a member of my family, like a godfather."
The program's transformation occurred off the court as well as on. With Skerry insisting on study hall attendance, the team posted a 2.94 GPA last semester, up from 2.29 in fall 2009, when Pat Kennedy was coach. Towson missed the postseason this year because its academic progress rate, the number the NCAA uses to measure a program's success in retaining and graduating players, fell well below the acceptable threshold of 900 in Kennedy's last two seasons.
Athletic director Mike Waddell says Towson has already secured a conditional NCAA waiver to compete in the postseason next year, provided the team's academic performance remains solid through this season.
"It takes guys who know there's a bigger picture than just their grades," Damas says. "It affects the team as well. Now it's natural. We have to go to study hall. It's something we have to do, and we know that. There's no rebuttal on that. It's something we need."
If you didn't catch the story unfolding at Towson this season, you're hardly alone. Mid-major programs rarely garner much attention unless they shock a Goliath in the NCAA tournament. But consider this: No Division I men's team has ever staged a larger one-year improvement than Towson did in 2012-13.
Towson basketball wasn't just lousy last season, when the Tigers set an all-time record by suffering its 41st straight loss. The program hadn't managed a winning record since 1996. Despite the hopes of university administrators, who believed a winning basketball team could invigorate campus life and alumni donations, the formula for success eluded coach after coach.
Skerry arrived in 2011, saying there was no reason for Towson to remain down, given its East Coast location, burgeoning academic reputation and the $75 million arena being built on campus. He had recruited big-time players as an assistant at Pittsburgh and Providence, but it was hard not to be skeptical, given Towson basketball's history.
That skepticism only deepened as Skerry managed just one victory in his first season as a head coach. No matter how much fire he breathed in practice or from the sideline, his guys were simply outmanned. "We were probably the worst team in the country," he says matter-of-factly.
Players got used to friends and loved ones asking why they had chosen this team with no reputation and a record made for mocking.
"Never have I been asked a question more than, 'Why Towson?'" says Hairston, who chose the Tigers over Virginia and Boston College.
Mike Burwell, who transferred from South Florida, got used to the looks from fellow students when he introduced himself as a basketball player. "It was like, 'Ugh, you play for them? They're horrible!'" he says.
What Skerry knew that others didn't was that he had transfers sitting out — Burwell and Jerrelle Benimon from Georgetown — who regularly thrashed his starters in practice. If Skerry the coach couldn't work miracles, Skerry the salesman at least made sure his cupboard would never again be so bare.
His message to incoming recruits was simple: They could be the ones to make a nothing program into something.
The players knew as soon as they convened for workouts last summer that they'd be better. Gone were the guys who didn't buy into Skerry's admonitions. Those who remained were not only more talented, but they worked at school and basketball with daily purpose.
"You could just tell the atmosphere changed because it was all Coach Skerry's players," Burwell says. "We wanted to play for him, because he was our guy. He was the reason we were here."
Not even the news that they would be ineligible for the postseason, which came in June, dulled the players' rising spirit.
The biggest revelation was Benimon, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound Adonis who scored from all over the court and ranked top five in the country in rebounding. He was the best player in the CAA from the moment he stepped onto the floor.
It took the Tigers just four games to eclipse the win total from the previous season. With so many new players, they experienced their share of early hiccups. But they got better and better.
In December, they traveled to Oregon State and rallied from 19 points down to beat a team that had whipped them by 20 in 2011. They beat Drexel and Old Dominion, CAA teams that had toyed with them in recent seasons. And in their penultimate game, they broke a 20-game losing streak against George Mason, a program that went to the Final Four in 2006.
As the season went on, the players talked of making every game count because there would be no tournament. Before each of the last three, Skerry gave the same speech: "They can take away our postseason. They can take away the NCAA tournament. But they can't take away the next 40 minutes."
If anything, the players were too hyped when they took the court against Hofstra for their last game and the last game ever at the Towson Center. Finally, they were playing before a big crowd, with students making so much noise that the referees missed a late-game timeout call by Skerry.
Towson held on to win a close game and just like that, the season of redemption was over.
The players make no bones about how difficult the next few weeks will be. Every time they watch a tournament game, they'll think about what could have been.
"The other day, we were just sitting on the couch like, 'Oh, my God, we could beat these teams that are on TV right now,'" Hairston says. "And that's just gonna kill us."
Skerry tried everything he could to gain an NCAA waiver for the postseason. He said he would sit out if his guys could play on. Or maybe, he said, any postseason revenues could be donated to programs that help city kids reach college.
But the NCAA rules are what they are. "It's tough," Skerry says. "Not the intent of the rule but the way it's enforced. In the end, the wrong people, these kids, are getting penalized."
He could only tell them that if this is the worst travail in their lives, they'll be fine. And of course, they have next season.
The Tigers expect to return their five leading scorers as they begin play in a sparkling new arena. They'll be thinner inside without Dixon but will feature another top transfer in Four McGlynn, who was America East Conference Rookie of the Year at Vermont in 2011-12. Skerry says McGlynn could be one of the best outside shooters in the country.
"Really, I feel like this is just going to make us more dangerous for next year," Hairston says of sitting home this postseason. "We're going to play with another chip on our shoulder. It's gonna be like, 'You guys should have let us rock last year!'"
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