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.

Benimon's rise

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!'"

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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