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Far removed from a one-win season, Pat Skerry and Towson are rolling

The Tigers are off to the best start in their Div. I history.

Towson Athletics

Most people told Pat Skerry not to do it.

When Towson was looking for a head coach in 2011, the then-Pitt assistant was told not to take the job. There were good reasons for that. The Tigers had gone 15 years without a winning season, and had ended the previous year on a 19-game losing streak.

Skerry didn’t listen, and took the job anyway.

Right away those people looked like they’d given him the right advice. He endured a 1-31 inaugural season, which included the back half of a then-NCAA-record 41-game losing streak.

“Sports is humbling,” Skerry said. “I was an assistant for one year at Pittsburgh and we won 30 games, next year I’m getting a job and losing 30 games.”

That dreary season, the Tigers sunk to 1-25 at VCU in early February. It was still right in the thick of the Shaka Smart era, and Skerry knew his team would get fed to the wolves in what was ultimately a 23-point loss. The day before, the first-year coach spent three hours in a conference call with the NCAA and Towson’s lawyers dealing with APR issues he had no role in creating.

At that moment? Those people sure looked like they’d been right. Six years later with a fresh extension in hand, things sure look different.

Blueprint for a rebuild

Towson has won 20 games or more three out of the last four seasons, and at 10-1, is trending toward that number yet again with its best start since it made the Div. I jump in 1979.

Part of that one-win campaign, however, still sticks with the program.

“We had the same practice we have now,” Skerry said. “We never came in and said, ‘Hey Johnny, keep your head up and let’s Kumbaya.’ No, we just went at it every day and tried to figure out how to get better. We didn’t win games, but that group did get better over the course of the season.”

The wins came immediately the following year. Towson won 18 games in Skerry’s second season, capping off the most drastic single-season turnaround in NCAA history. The year after, the win total jumped to 25 games, and the Tigers made their first postseason tournament — the CIT — in nearly a quarter century.

It was that kind of success that Skerry envisioned when he bucked what people were saying and took the job.

“The thing that excited me about Towson and still excites me, I feel like we’ve got a lot of untapped potential. We’re in a great area, we have a great institution,” he said. “I like the idea of trying to be a part of building something. I’m just kind of wired that way.”

And Skerry has built more than just that initial bounce back.

Every player from that 25-win team in 2013-14 is gone, but the winning formula has remained the same. Under Skerry — even in that dismal first season — the Tigers have always been a force on the offensive glass. They’ve also made life tough on opposing offenses, posting a top-100 two-point field goal percentage defense in each of the past six seasons.

By emphasizing playing through contact and practicing rebounding every day, Skerry has put that physicality into the DNA of the program.

“We like those tough, edgy guys,” Skerry said. “I think defense is something you can get any team to do. I hope we’ve put a product out on the floor where to beat Towson, you’ve got to bring it for 40 minutes. Hopefully that’s something if you ask people in our league, they’d say ‘Yeah, they’re beatable, but it’s going to be a war.’”

The season with an asterisk

Last season, the Tigers were surging as the regular season reached its final stretch. They had turned an 0-4 CAA start into a 9-5 league record after a win at Drexel on Feb. 11.

Then, something few teams have to deal with happened: Towson’s leading scorer and rebounder got shot.

Senior forward John Davis, a Philadelphia native, was visiting family after the Drexel win when he was caught in a drive-by shooting. He was shot in the knee, and while it thankfully wasn’t life threatening, it did end his career with the league tournament looming.

Davis talked about it with the Washington Post.

“I knew when they told me there was a bullet in my knee that I wasn’t going to play college basketball again,” he said, smiling. “I’m a pretty smart guy, I figured that out pretty quickly. But the doctors told me the bullet didn’t hit any bone. I want to play somewhere next year, and I’ll get the chance to do that. I’ll have my degree and I’ll have basketball. I love the game, and I hope to be around it in some form for a long while.

The senior — who had been averaging 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game — was a presence on the bench the rest of the season. Towson didn’t wilt, finishing the regular season at 2-2 and beating Northeastern in their CAA Tournament opener.

But the Tigers fell to a gritty College of Charleston team in the semifinals, and Skerry thought there might have been more tread on that season.

“We had the unfortunate incident with John, and I felt like we just left something on the table,” he said. “There will always be an asterisk on the season. Like any team when you lose your leading scorer and rebounder with a couple games to go, it makes it hard.”

The final step

Davis sadly missed out on his last chance to help put the exclamation mark on Towson’s rebuild by making its first NCAA Tournament since 1991.

The forward might not have jumped off the page athletically, but he was a three-year difference maker for the Tigers. It’s finding players like this, Skerry said, that has the program top-to-bottom the healthiest it’s been during his tenure.

“It’s an inexact science, but we’ve made sure we’ve recruited guys that fit us,” he said. “When it’s live, some guys find a way and you’ve got to get past the eyeball test. Those are the kind of guys we’ve gravitated toward.”

Can the current group make that final leap?

If they don’t, it won’t be because they lack experience. The Tigers’ season to this point has been packed with six games away from home, and two tournament championships on two continents. They won the Gulf Coast Showcase during Feast Week, and then traveled to Northern Ireland a week later for the Belfast Classic.

Mike Morsell has been steady again for Towson.
Towson Athletics

The Tigers sunk Manhattan in the Belfast Classic title game on a dramatic jumper by Mike Morsell in the final seconds. It was a signature moment for the senior wing, who has started 81 games over his four-year career. The reigning All-CAA third teamer is putting together another solid season (12.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG), but has gotten a ton of help from Zane Martin.

The sophomore guard finished his freshman year on a high note, scoring in double figures in four of Towson’s final six games. But after being, in Skerry’s words, the Tigers’ best player over the summer, Martin has exploded as an all-around star. He’s more than tripled his scoring average (17.3 PPG) and has been one of Towson’s better perimeter defenders.

Martin’s emergence hasn’t been the only important development for the Tigers. They’ve shot the three better than any team in the Skerry era (37.6 3P%), an area they’ve struggled in over his tenure. Skerry credits this to senior forward Eddie Keith moving to power forward and helping create better spacing.

Overall, it’s been an impressive five weeks for Towson.

“I do think we have some experience we can draw upon when we go through that gauntlet in Charleston in March,” Skerry said.

And that is what it will come down to.

The Tigers have remaining road games at Oakland and Pitt and the full CAA slate, but the harsh reality is that an at-large bid is not in the cards. So if the Tigers break that 26-year NCAA Tournament drought, they’ll need to survive heavy-league favorite C of C, resurgent Northeastern and others in the league tournament.

An offense susceptible to cold stretches — which reared its head in an opening loss to Old Dominion — has doomed the Tigers in March in the past. In the past two league tournaments, the Tigers have bowed out in games in which they shot 38.4 percent or worse from the field. So far this season, however, they’ve looked very much like a team that can be a major factor when March rolls around.

It wasn’t that long ago that one was an ugly number for Towson. But if they cut down the nets and are the one team left standing in Charleston?

One won’t be so ugly anymore.