The Assignment: The 2011-2012 Towson Tigers won one game. The 2012-2013 Tigers won 18, which represented the greatest single-season turnaround in NCAA History. Explain why this year’s Towson team, now eligible for postseason play, has a phenomenal chance to contend for a CAA Championship. Use statistical evidence to strengthen your argument.
Towson Tiger fans will not soon forget December 29th, 2012. On a day when the rest of the CAA went 0-for-6, the Tigers garnered a huge victory for the league, a 67-66 overtime win at Oregon State. It was a win that changed the fate of the Tigers’ season, and continued to push the wheels of change within the Towson program.
On that day, a program that was 5-56 over the previous two seasons equaled those five wins in the first 50 days of the season. It was, as CAAHoops scribe Patrick Amarena described it, the moment when the guys realized, “Hey, we’re pretty good, and we know it, and now you will too.”
With 18 wins and a 13-5 record in league play, head coach Pat Skerry guided Towson to the greatest single-season turnaround (a 17.5-game improvement) in NCAA history. The Tigers were prohibited from postseason play (APR issues) but closed out the season by winning eight of nine, including their final game ever in the Towson Center. It was an absolutely magical run, and the other CAA teams were lucky the Tigers weren’t sharing the floor in Richmond.
But the magic doesn’t have to stop there. Towson will open the beautiful 5,200-seat Tiger Arena with momentum aplenty. The Tigers return their top five scorers, including the CAA Player of the Year, from last year’s team. Throw in a talented transfer and five college-ready freshmen, and Skerry’s squad looks primed for an encore performance.
Last season Skerry, now entering his third year at Towson, surmised that George Mason’s Sherrod Wright was the biggest matchup nightmare in the CAA. Going into this season, it seems that Skerry won’t have to look to the other bench to figure out which guy in the league is the biggest mismatch.
That honor belongs to Jerrelle Benimon, who spearheaded the Oregon State win with a 20-point, 21-rebound outburst. The rising senior averaged 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game. He was the team leader in each of those categories, as well as an All-CAA defender The Georgetown transfer is a 6’8” 245-pound power forward who can play on the perimeter.
Benimon shot 53.3% from the field, and made 20-of-49 attempts from three. Benimon tied with UNCW’s Keith Rendleman for the second-most double-doubles in the nation (20), and might have challenged the national leader (Bucknell’s Mike Muscala) if Towson had been eligible for postseason play. Benimon was the runaway pick for CAA POY, and looks poised for another huge year.
If there’s one guy on the Towson roster who you feel good for, it’s 6’7″ forward Marcus Damas. 18 months ago, he was the best player on one of the worst teams in the country. Last year, he was the only guy from the one-win campaign to garner starter’s minutes. With all of the new bodies wearing black and gold last year, there was an obvious adjustment period for Damas.
Even so, after hitting the game-winner against Oregon State, Damas emerged as Towson’s X-factor, and was the team’s second-leading scorer with 11.4 points per game. After scoring in double figures just three times in Towson’s first 10 games, Damas was in double digits in 16 of Towson’s final 20 games. Damas averaged 12.7 points in conference contests.
For Towson, controlling the paint was the key to success. With a hefty +6.5 rebounding advantage, Towson was the ninth-best rebounding team (39.6 boards per game) in D-I. The Tigers averaged 5.3 blocks per game (16th in the country) and frequently outscored their opponents inside the paint.
Credit Benimon, Damas, and Bilal Dixon (6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game), a space-eating center who was the perfect complement to Benimon, for Towson’s success inside. Dixon’s expired eligibility will leave Towson with a huge hole to plug in the middle of the floor. At 6’9” 245 pounds, he was a rare player for this league.
Rising sophomore forward Timajh Parker-Rivera has the best chance to pick up some of Dixon’s minutes. Parker-Rivera averaged 2.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 15.3 minutes last year. He had a couple nice games, and flashed some shot-blocking potential. He won’t be the bulky presence Dixon was, but the upside is there.
The Tigers probably won’t quite be as dominant on the glass, but improved guard play will make them a more balanced team. Last year, they had a 0.68 assist-to-turnover ratio and a -4.0 turnover margin. Experience will help them improve in those areas.
We busted on Delaware for this stat, but Towson was right there with the Hens: the Tigers averaged 0.42 assists per field goal made (344th in D-I). Neither Delaware nor Towson would qualify as a great shooting team, and ball movement is crucial to creating quality shots. Like Delaware, Towson got to the free-throw line at high clip (22.4 attempts per game). Unfortunately, the Tigers didn’t cash in like the Blue Hens did.
The Tigers return Jerome Hairston, an All-CAA Rookie team member who averaged 9.9 points as a freshman. Hairston, a Five-Team CAA Rookie of the Week selection, led the Tigers with 35 steals. He’s a crafty scorer who can fill it up, but he’ll need to improve on his assist-to-turnover ratio (77 assists versus 82 turnovers).
As talented as Hairston is, the Tigers’ best guard may be a transfer. In 2011-2012, Vermont’s Four McGlynn was the American East Rookie of the Year, when he averaged a cool dozen points per game. Perhaps more importantly, McGlynn shot 38% from three and a blistering 88.9% from the foul line. Towson desperately needs some consistency from three-point range, and McGlynn can be an impact player there.
Last year, Mike Burwell was Towson’s main threat from downtown. The South Florida transfer hit 47 3-pointers, but at a 31.5% clip. Burwell’s play will be crucial to the Tigers’ success, as he’ll likely match up with some of the CAA’s top wings (Damion Lee, Quincy Ford, etc.) on the perimeter. The Tigers should be a more efficient shooting team, from both the foul line and from three-point range. Last year, they shot just 65.4% from the charity stripe and 31.4% from downtown (274th in D-I).
If the Tigers can space effectively space the floor, senior Rafriel Guthrie (8.1 points per game) can certainly take advantage. Guthrie’s a slasher who can create chaos in the lane. Like Hairston, he’ll need to improve on the turnovers (30 assists to 42 turnovers) to see the floor consistently.
Three new recruits and two redshirt freshmen will fight for playing time. On a senior-laden team, these freshmen have the luxury to compete for minutes with worrying about carrying the load. This will prove to be invaluable in ’14-’15, when underclassmen will dominate the roster.
6’8” forward Barrington Alston played in eight games at the beginning of the season, but was forced to redshirt because of illness. Marquis Marshall, the son of NBA veteran Donyell Marshall, redshirted last season, and is described as a terrific long-range shooter.
The three incoming freshman, John Davis, Walter Foster, and Shamiek Sheppard, will bolster Towson on the wing and in the frontcourt. Reviews and quotes on the three freshmen are very positive. Skerry discusses the three true freshman here. 6’1″ point guard Charles Ekeayanwu plans to walk on to the team as well.
Towson is in the clear to compete in next year’s postseason. The Tigers will still have some limitations placed upon their practice – losing four hours and condensing practice time into five days each week, which could make for a sluggish start to the season. Last season, Towson trailed new conference mate Charleston 46-17 in the season opener, but improved tremendously from that point forward.
Having Benimon is enough of a reason to select Towson as the favorite to win the CAA. He’ll be the best big man in a CAA without a Jamelle Hagins, a DeShawn Painter or a Rendleman. The Drexel Dragons, possibly Towson’s biggest threat in the race for the CAA title, just lost one of the league’s best forwards, Daryl McCoy, to graduation. Most of the big men in the league will be young, and that bodes well for Towson, as Benimon and Damas give them one of the CAA’s best frontcourt duos.
Expected improvements from Hairston and Guthrie, who now have a year of D-I hoops under their belts, combined with the addition of McGlynn, means the Tiger backcourt should be in good hands. Towson needs smart, consistent play from the two guard spots. This team should be a better defensive team than it was a year ago, when it allowed a fairly pedestrian 67.5 points per game. However, the Tigers held their opponents to just a 45.2% effective field goal percentage (39th in D-I).
Add it all up, and Towson has the look of the most well-rounded team in the CAA. With no glaring holes, the Tigers’ success hinges on improvements in ball-handling and shooting. Considering how much the gains they made last year, it seems like a given. And when you consider that the CAA Tournament will be in Baltimore next year, Towson seems like a logical pick to play deep into the conference tournament, with a phenomenal chance to represent the CAA in the Big Dance.