Before Zane Martin could agree to transfer to the Towson men’s basketball program from the University of New Mexico, he knew he would have to do one thing: meet with coach Pat Skerry to review his decision to leave the Tigers after the 2017-18 season.
“I knew it was going to be kind of a tough conversation,” Martin said. “I knew it was a conversation that needed to happen. I more so was eager. I was trying to get it over with. I was trying to have that conversation and get to work and get back on his good side.”
The discussion went well because Martin announced Aug. 24 that he had agreed to return to Towson for his final year of eligibility. And on Monday, the redshirt senior received a waiver from the NCAA to play in the 2020-21 season, which will begin Nov. 25.
Perhaps just as importantly, Martin mended bridges with Skerry.
“I thought it spoke a lot about him that he reached out,” Skerry said. “It’s not easy for a guy to say that he made a mistake. A couple guys might think I’m getting soft, but I would like to think that we would have a little empathy.”
Martin’s first foray with the Tigers appeared to go smoothly. In his first two seasons, he compiled 815 points off 290 field goals, including 88 3-pointers, and 118 assists.
As a sophomore, Martin exploded for 19.8 points and 2.6 assists per game, shooting 45.8% from the floor and 38% from behind the 3-point arc. That showing earned him All-Colonial Athletic Association second-team honors and gave the program a sense that it had a foundational player it could build around.
But shortly after the end of the 2017-18 season, Martin announced his intention to transfer. Recruited only by Towson and Rider University while playing at Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Martin said he felt a need to be validated by interest from larger NCAA Division I programs.
“Just being young, greedy, immature,” he said of his mindset at the time. “I felt like it was a situation where I had to go somewhere and see if I could be a player at that level. I just felt like I was under-recruited out of high school. So I had a good year in my sophomore year, and I wanted to see what I could do. I’m not saying that I regretted it, but I just wanted to see.”
Skerry said he could relate to Martin’s emotions, but said watching him leave was painful.
“I was hurt by him leaving more than anyone because it affected our team,” Skerry said. “Every guy that you get the fortunate opportunity to coach, you like to think you have a great relationship with him, and I’ve always had a good relationship with Zane. I was disappointed that he left, but I certainly didn’t hold any grudges.”
Martin, who chose the Lobos over Auburn, Clemson, Gonzaga and Seton Hall, sat out the 2018-19 campaign per transfer rules. Last winter, in his only year at New Mexico, he averaged 10.2 points and 3.1 assists and ranked in the top 10 in Mountain West play in assist/turnover ratio (1.9), assists per game (3.6) and steals per game (1.3) before the coronavirus pandemic cut the college basketball season short.
Even two time zones and almost 2,000 miles away, Martin’s mind did not stray too far from the Tigers. He had hung four Towson jerseys on the wall of his dorm room at New Mexico.
The most popular one was the baby blue jersey the Tigers wore in their annual Autism Awareness game, which has been spearheaded by Skerry after his son Owen was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
“Everyone would come in and be amazed at how many nice jerseys we had at Towson,” Martin said. “Everybody liked it because it stood out.”
A desire to be closer to his hometown of Philadelphia and uncertainty about the state of athletics at New Mexico and within the Mountain West conference prompted Martin to consider transferring again, and after mulling offers from Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Delaware, he selected the Tigers.
Lobos coach Paul Weir was complimentary of Martin’s choice.
“Zane always shared fond memories of Towson, and we are all so happy for him that he has the chance to go back and finish where he started,” he said through a team spokeswoman. “I am sure he will thrive there even more so than the first time around. We are cheering for him.”
When he talked to Martin in August, Skerry said he was open with Martin.
“I told him, ‘It hurt when you left. But whether you come back here or go anywhere else, when your professional playing career is over and I see you in a gym 15 or 20 years from now, I hope we can sit down and talk about your family and mine and how everything is going,’” he said. “I know he’s excited to be back. He was a good player for us.”
Martin said he appreciated Skerry’s candor and philosophy.
“He welcomed me back with open arms,” he said. “I didn’t expect it so quickly, but it was what it was. He was always there for me whenever I needed him.”
Martin’s return is timely. Guard Brian Fobbs, the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, graduated with a bachelor’s in communications, and guard Allen Betrand, the second-leading scorer at 13.6 points, transferred to Rhode Island in the offseason.
Skerry, who compared Martin to Houston Rockets star James Harden in terms of his ability to create offense for himself and others, said Martin should fit nicely with sophomore point guard Jason Gibson (8.4 points, 2.1 assists), redshirt senior forward Juwan Gray (7.0 points, 4.3 rebounds) and redshirt sophomore guard Nicolas Timberlake (6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds).
“We lost a couple of very good wing players, a couple of guys that I really liked coaching,” Skerry said. “But him coming back helps, especially when we have a couple freshmen who had great freshman years in Gibson and Timberlake. And we’ve added a couple of experienced guys on the perimeter. I can’t tell you that this was the initial script when the season ended in March, but he’s a good player, and I’ve always had a good relationship with him.”
Martin returns to a campus where some dorms and buildings are new and he has never played with any of the players on the current roster. In a similar vein, Martin said he is a different player.
“This Zane Martin is way more focused, way more locked in, and he’s determined to get wins,” he said. “I’m determined to play with my teammates and get everyone around me better.”