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Skerry leads turnaround of Towson men's basketball program

Pat Skerry sat behind the big desk in his office at Towson University on Wednesday looking way better than I thought he would.

Less than 12 hours earlier, the Tigers had dropped a tough 75-70 decision to James Madison, a team they beat by 26 at Towson Center in January. Predictably, the bus ride back from Harrisonburg, Va., had not exactly been a rolling party.

But Skerry finds it tough to stay gloomy these days, not with the Tigers quietly putting together one of the best turnarounds in recent college basketball history.

Coming off a 1-31season he describes as "like a root canal without the Novocain, " Towson is 14-13 and 9-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association. And while they're not exactly throwing parades on Osler Drive yet, Skerry says the rest of the campus is definitely getting excited about the program.

"We've got a chance to get this thing going," the second-year coach said. "Probably to a lot of people last year, we were an eyesore. And that's not the case anymore, obviously."

Skerry is a sight to behold during Towson's games, working the sidelines with all the calm of a man being attacked by vampire bats.

But whatever he and his coaches are doing seems to be working. The fact is, the Tigers were horrendous last season. Their main problem was simple: they couldn't put the ball in the basket. They averaged 55.1 points per game to rank dead last in the NCAA. They didn't score over 69 points in a single game.

This year they're averaging 68.3 points per game and 73.9 in CAA contests, tops in the league. And they're scored 69 or more points 14 times.

Much of the credit for that goes to Jerrelle Benimon, the 6-foot-8 transfer from Georgetown who leads the country in double-doubles (18) and is third in rebounding (11.4 per game.)

He also leads Towson in scoring (16.6 points per game), rebounds (11.4 per game), blocked shots (55) and assists (70), and is almost a lock to be the CAA Player of the Year.

When you ask Skerry how big a role Benimon has played in the turnaround, he stops in mid-swig from a water bottle and his eyes light up.

"Oh, ridiculous!" Skerry said. "He's really gifted on both ends of the floor. He's tough, he's skilled, he competes, he's talented. He's improved a lot with his leadership skills.

"His only flaw — and I've talked to him about this — is he's a closet perfectionist. He gets frustrated easily if he makes a mistake, and he'll let that affect him. He's made strides with that. If he can wipe that, he's still scratching the surface (of his potential.) He's a guy that can make a living doing this."

And when Benimon throws in a rare clunker for the Tigers, Skerry doesn't exactly take it easy on the big guy.

Here was Skerry to The Baltimore Sun after his star forward was held to 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting and eight boards in the Tigers' 77-67 loss to George Mason in January:

"He let his frustrations get to him. He hurt us on both ends of the floor. You want to be a prime-time guy, you play every night. He was bad. He took bad shots. He was really bad defensively and then he hurt us at the foul line. He has to play better. Sometimes the ball doesn't go in, but there's other things. You can still guard. You still rebound. He took some horrific, horrific shots."

Yep, that was Skerry, holding it all in. And when some of that was repeated back to him yesterday, he offered a sheepish grin, but no apology.

"I like to think I coach him pretty hard," he said of Benimon. "But that's only because I think he can be special. I think you've got to coach your best players the hardest."

Benimon has been the stud for the Tigers, but he's had help from junior swingman Marcus Damas, junior guard Mike Burwell, freshman point guard Jerome Hairston and senior center Bilal Dixon.

"When you get good players," Skerry says with a smile, "it makes you really look like you know what you're doing on the sidelines."

He also credits the Tigers' turnaround to the fact they played a tough non-conference schedule that includes seven teams (College of Charleston, Eastern Kentucky, Loyola, Georgetown, Temple, North Dakota State, Oregon State) expected to win 20 or more games.

The Tigers won't play in the CAA Tournament this year. They're banned from the NCAA Tournament because of a low Academic Progress Report, and the CAA tourney winner gets an automatic berth to the Big Dance.

Skerry thinks the whole thing is terribly unfair, because the team's four-year APR score was dragged down by the players from former coach Pat Kennedy's teams. And Skerry points out that the GPA for his scholarship players has been 2.9 since he took over.

But that aside, things are looking up for the Tigers.

Four out of five starters — Benimon, Damas, Burwell and Hairston — return next season. And that's also when Towson will move into brand new Tiger Arena, a 5,200 seat jewel on campus that, even though still under construction, has been dazzling Tiger recruits.

It dazzles Skerry, too.

"I changed the way I drive in every day, just to drive past it," he said. "It's got pop."

Now his team has a little of that, too, after so many years without it.



Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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