For a guy who just lived through a 1-31 season in his first year as a Division I head coach, Pat Skerry seems oddly optimistic.
But for the second-year Towson men's basketball coach, staying positive is a surprisingly easy thing to do. Just steps away from his second-floor Towson Center office, construction continues on the state-of-the-art Tiger Arena, which is scheduled to open Aug. 1, 2013. Skerry says he couldn't be happier about the support his program receives from the athletic department and the university's administration. And the former Pittsburgh, Providence and Rhode Island assistant is bringing in a group of players that he thinks can potentially turn around Towson's on-the-court fortunes in a hurry.
For the 2012-13 season, Towson returns leading scorer Marcus Damas, a junior small forward, sophomore point guard Kris Walden, and sophomore center Jamel Flash. The Tigers also add three Big East transfers in center Bilal Dixon (Providence), shooting guard Mike Burwell (South Florida) and power forward Jerrelle Benimon (Georgetown).
Skerry's highly touted 2012 recruiting class, which NBCSports.com named one of the best under-the-radar groups in the country, features: Roanoke, Va., point guard Jerome Hairston (Rivals.com's No. 121 prospect nationally); Bridgeport, Conn., forward Timajh Parker-Rivera; Wilmington, Del., center/forward Barrington Alston; Reading, Pa., wing Marquis Marshall (son of former NBA player Donyell Marshall); and wing Rafriel Guthrie, a D.C. native who played last year at College of Southern Idaho. Petersburg, Va., guard Frank Mason, who signed with the Tigers in November, is not expected to be at Towson this year. The Tigers are also expected to welcome one of their top players during the 2010-11 season back into the fold.
Skerry spoke with The Sun this week about the 2012-13 Tigers.
Let's break down the roster by position, starting at point guard.
We'll have Hairston, who's obviously the most talented guy we signed. He's got a chance to be really good. He's got next-level size and great vision. Him, and obviously Kris Walden, can play both guard spots for us. [Walden's] had a really good spring. His body's changed. So I've been excited about those two guys.
How are things shaping up at shooting guard?
We'll have Burwell at the guard spot. We're expecting big things from him. Big East kid, he's a legit 6-5, athletic, he can shoot. He's still got to take hits better, but he's talented.
More than likely, if summer goes as expected, [RaShawn] Polk is going to come back as a grad student. [Editor's note: Polk was suspended last year after facing assault and burglary charges]. He had a great year academically and he'd like to come back. So we're going to go through the summer. He had a pretty good career until he had a blip on the radar, and obviously with all that stuff, he's been fine and cleared of all that.
Are you impressed that he kept working despite his suspension?
I am impressed – one, the way he's handled his academics. He's well above a 3.0. The other piece is that he wants to get a master's, get involved with counseling with kids. He wants to be here at Towson. Now he's had a long time off, not having practices and all that stuff. But we'll try to get him back in to Summer 2 and evaluate that. We're working on him getting accepted into grad school now that he's graduated. So there's a strong possibility he'll be back with us. So that makes us markedly deeper in the backcourt than we were a year ago.
How do you envision things shaking out at the 3?
At the 3 we've got Marcus Damas back, who led us in scoring and got stronger. He had a good year. I think he surprised us. And then we're excited about the other kid that can play a lot of different positions, Guthrie. He's from a good program out of Southern Idaho. He led D.C. in scoring a couple years ago. He's not that big – he's only 6-3, 6-2. A lot of guys say they play hard; this guy really, really plays hard. He was second in his region in rebounding, which tells you about a guy's toughness level. So I'm really excited about him. I also think he's going to be our best defender, something we didn't have last year, like a lockdown guy. And I think him and Marcus, Marcus can play some 2. I think Guthrie can play 2 through 4 for us. All of a sudden we've got a little bit more flexibility. We've got the potential to be a lot deeper. And Marquis Marshall we signed late. He might have more upside than all of them. He's got to get a lot stronger, his body needs to fill out. But he's 6-5, could keep growing; his dad's about 6-9. And Marquis can really shoot it. Good feel for the game. He's got to get stronger. He's really thin. But he can really shoot it. When you shoot the ball as poorly as we did a year ago, obviously a couple guys that can make shots can bring value. He'll be in second session summer school, so that'll be an important five weeks for him.
And then we've got Benimon, who will step right in to the 4. He's talented. We knew he was physical, a good rebounder. What we didn't know is that he can really pass, he can shoot, he can post. He's like the guys that are leaving this league that obviously we didn't have that you need. He's like a [Ryan] Pearson [of George Mason], [Bradford] Burgess [of VCU], Samme Givens [of Drexel] type of a guy. A true 4 man. He's had a great offseason. He's 6-8, 238. I think he's got to become a better leader for us, but he's got a chance to be as talented as most guys that we'll play against in CAA play.
Benimon can move around. He can move up a spot or down a spot. We signed a kid Timahj Parker; he's a combo forward out of St. Joe's High School in Trumbull, Conn., that won back-to-back state championships. He was an Atlantic 10-level recruit. He's 6-7, already 218. Like a lot of freshmen, you want to have them every day for skill work. But he's got a motor. He's tough. I just think he's used to winning. I'm excited about him.
Finally, talk about what you've got at the 5.
We've got Bilal Dixon from Providence, who will play right away. He's a grad student. He's 6-9, about 260, 265. He's a big kid.
So you obviously overlapped with him at Providence, right?
I coached him for two years. My first year at Providence we redshirted him. My second year, he had a great freshman year. He made the Rivals All-Big East Rookie team. His numbers went down a little bit over his career, but you look at his rebounds per minute [and they] are really good in Big East play – better than anyone we had in Colonial play. Bilal, we're excited he wanted to come in right for summer school. He's in here all summer. He knows he's needed here. He wants to get a master's and continue playing. He has a chance to be an upper-level, all-conference CAA center and then continue his goal of playing professionally. It's also a good fit for us because we don't have any older guys as seniors in the frontcourt. Obviously the rule works. It's a different rule, there's a lot of people complaining about the rule, but I think at this point in time it worked pretty good for us.
How has he adapted so far to Towson?
I look at Bilal, and he's been great for the three weeks he's been here. It's almost like a trade in the NBA – sometimes a change of scenery rejuvenates you. He's always been a good student – he graduated from Providence. Obviously it gives us a little bit of a different look, putting Benimon and Dixon in the frontcourt, than what we had from an experience and physicality standpoint.
What else do you have at the 5?
Then we have the kid Barrington Alston that we signed, who we think is going to be very good. 6-8, long, long arms, 220. Got to get stronger. Very good defensively. We've got to spend a lot of time on skill work with him, but he's got a motor. He is our most athletic guy, no question about that. And then we still have Jamel Flash, a 6-11 kid who will be a sophomore. He works, he's making strides. I just feel like we have obviously a much more talented, deeper roster than we had 13, 14 months ago.
So you have three returning guys in Walden, Damas and Flash. Where did Deon Jones, Alex Giergen, Erique Gumbs, Will Adams and Jervon Pressley end up?
Jones is going to Monmouth, Giergen transferred to Lindsey Wilson, which is an NAIA school in Kentucky, [and] Gumbs is staying on scholarship. He has Marfan's syndrome. He's fine, a very good student, but we have some medical complications that can't allow him to play.
Will he still be around the program?
He wants to try to get a master's in a nursing program. He might do more stuff with the athletic training. But [we want him] as much as he can be around. He's a good guy. And then Will Adams is hoping to end up – some Division II schools are looking at him up in Pennsylvania. And then Jervon Pressley, showed some flashes, he's going to go transfer back close to home, we think.
That's obviously a lot of turnover for just one year. What would you say to critics who question you on having so many departures?
I think it's a fair question. The one piece is that all our guys that we coached have left above the NCAA-required 2.6 GPA. Every last one. So I'm proud of our academic staff, my staff and certainly the kids' efforts academically. It's been no-nonsense with that. That's been quite opposite from what it was a year ago – polar opposites. [Also], it's important for kids to play. They put a lot into it, and obviously some guys are going places I guess where they feel like they can play. We're in a high-level league. We are going to try to upgrade our talent. We need to upgrade our talent. I guess that's somewhat of a byproduct of it.
I feel like we've done a pretty good job of managing the roster with classes and breakdown. It's hard to do. What we need to do is go have another really good two- or three-man class.
You also had some staff movement with Kenny Johnson taking a job with Indiana and replacing him with Bruce Shingler, a Morgan assistant and another former AAU guy from D.C. Were you surprised about Kenny's move?
Kenny's thing caught me off guard, but Kenny did a great job for us. Great guy. Indiana's obviously a hell of an opportunity. We would have liked to have him longer. But we wanted to get a guy from this neck of the woods down to Northern Virginia. Bruce is a guy I interviewed when I first got here last year. I got to know him. I'm actually pretty good friends with[South Carolina coach] Frank Martin, who he worked for at Kansas State. A lot of people don't know, Frank took my job at Northeastern when I left. I've known Frank for a while, and he's a very good coach. I like that Bruce worked at Morgan around this neck of the woods and worked for a good coach in Coach [Todd] Bozeman. And obviously he's got ties; he coached D.C. Assault. Obviously in this region, there's a lot of elite, elite, national AAU programs. And Bruce had some strong ties to them.
The other thing you always look for in a staff is, I think the makeup and balance. Kevin Clark is a guy who recruited me out of high school. We've worked together [and he's] a former head coach. He's a consummate pro, someone that I've had a relationship with for 20 years. He helps mentor and coach the coaches. I was ecstatic when I got Luke [Murray] to come down here. He's worked for good coaches in [Arizona's] Sean Miller, [Rhode Island's] Danny Hurley and [Quinnipiac's] Tommy Moore. He's really tied in from New England down through Philly. And then I knew we needed a guy from this neck of the woods.
With such a new roster, but one that seemingly has a lot of nice pieces, how big of a jump can you be expected to make this year?
I think chemistry ... defense and rebounding are important, major concerns of mine. Any time [you're bringing in so many new guys], you have to coach chemistry. And you have to coach chemistry every day. I love the way our guys are wired. We hired a new strength coach, Adam Fletcher, from the University of Michigan. Guy's an absolute home run, so I'm jacked up about that. He's made an immediate impact. He was a great player at Miami (Ohio). So I love the way we went after it this spring and summer. We want to win every game, but two things that kind of jump off to me with the expectation thing [is that] one, we have the second longest sub-.500 streak in the country. I feel like that would be a heck of a milestone [to overcome]. My staff and I's expectation is to make the biggest win jump in the country. And if we could do that, still having a lot of young guys, another good recruiting class, then the building opens, [and] I feel like it's on a little bit. VCU has left [the CAA], Old Dominion's leaving. And with the [new arena coming], why not us?