When the Towson men’s basketball team met for the first time in the fall for preseason workouts, nametags might have been helpful for a 14-member squad with 11 fresh faces. But four have been through this before.
Point guard Tobias Howard, wing Brian Fobbs and forwards Nakiye Sanders and Juwan Gray are transfers who — like the seven Tigers freshmen — are trying to find their footing in a different gym, in a different conference, and on a different campus. But they are trying to utilize that experience playing for other programs as an advantage, and they are already sought-after by their younger teammates for advice.
“I get ‘OG’ sometimes,” Sanders said, referring to the “Original Gangsta” nickname the freshmen have attached to him. “Not a lot, but I’m cool with it.”
As the Tigers (1-1) prepare to meet Pepperdine (1-1) on Friday at 8 p.m. in the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase, the new (older) players have already made a favorable impression.
Howard, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior from Western Kentucky via Chipola College, is tied for the team lead in scoring (10.5 points per game) and leads in assists (3.0 per game). Fobbs, a 6-4, 215-pound junior from Genessee Community College in New York ranks third in scoring (9.0 points) and is tied for second in rebounds (4.5). And Sanders, a 6-8, 240-pound redshirt junior from Duquesne, is tied for fourth in scoring (8.0 points) and tied for second in rebounds (4.5).
Per NCAA transfer rules, Gray, a 6-8, 215-pound redshirt sophomore, is expected to sit out this season, but the school is holding onto the possibility that he might be able to play.
Howard scored a team-high 10 points, and Fobbs was tied for the team lead in rebounds with six in Towson’s 73-42 loss at No. 5 Virginia on Nov. 6. Sanders ranked second in scoring (13 points) and rebounds (six), and Howard dished out six assists in a 93-66 rout of Division-III Wesley College on Sunday.
“The one thing that excited us is that we knew they could step in as performers for us,” said coach Pat Skerry, whose 2012-13 roster included five transfers in forwards Jerrelle Benimon (Georgetown), Rafriel Guthrie (Southern Idaho) and Bilal Dixon (Providence) and guards Mike Burwell (South Florida) and Four McGlynn (Vermont). “If we’re going to be good early, you’re going to lean a little bit more on those veteran guys. Now I think for us to become the team we think we can become, our young guys will really help us as they get their feet wet.”
As varied as their origins are — Fobbs and Sanders hail from New York, Gray from Delaware and Howard from Georgia — their journeys share similarities. Gray, Howard and Sanders said they left their schools after a coaching change, and all four said consistent interest from the Tigers helped convince them to join the program.
Asked if joining three other transfers provided a comforting feeling, Gray said: “Yeah, it was because we all shared stories on how we ended up here. Hearing everybody’s different perspectives kind of gives you some comfort.”
The transfers are a tight-knit group. Fobbs, Gray and Sanders live together in one suite in an on-campus dorm, while Howard lives in another suite in the same building. Howard usually joins the other three in their suite to talk, listen to music, and play video games, including NBA 2K.
“It’s easier because we know what it’s like,” Fobbs said of their connection. “We’re all juniors, and we want to do something special for this team. So it is kind of easy to spend time with each other because we have the same background. But it’s easy for the other guys to come and join in, too. They’re not that far behind us, and they want what we want, and we want what they want. It’s a team thing.”
The transfers said they are still getting accustomed to being peppered by questions from younger teammates.
“There are big expectations just because of our experience, and Coach knows we have experience,” Howard said. “He has seen us play and knows what we’re capable of. So there’s a little pressure to perform, but that’s what we want.”
There’s a role even for Gray, who has been allowed to practice but cannot travel with the team.
“I’ve been taking a lot of the underclassmen under my wing and trying to help them as much as possible,” he said.
Skerry, who has prided himself on composing teams built on defense, rebounding and physicality, has a pretty good idea on who is working to improve during non-practice hours, and he said the reports on the four transfers have been favorable.
“I think one of the things that I like about all four of them is that they are gym rats,” he said. “These guys like being in the gym outside of practice time working on their games. We always like that in guys, but these four in particular are excellent with that.”
While Gray and Sanders wear the Nos. 12 and 20 jerseys, respectively, that they donned at their previous stops, Howard and Fobbs switched to Nos. 0 and 23, respectively, to signify their fresh start at Towson. All four transfers have embraced the challenge of lifting a Tigers squad voted to finish 10th in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll.
“I feel like the transfers that came in, we’ve played at a high level before, and we’ve played in this atmosphere before and know what can carry a team,” Howard said. “So I’m pretty sure we all want that as well.”
Added Sanders: “Everybody that came in, we have the same mentality. We’re all here to win and change the program and try to win a championship.”