TOWSON – With three games left in the season and the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, head coach Pat Skerry, who took over the team at the end of last season 19 games into their 41-game losing streak, said he is optimistic about the future.
The team’s incoming recruiting class is ranked sixth among non-BCS schools, according to CBSSports.com, among the best in the program’s history.
“Honestly, what we’re going to do is build something where people say hey look at these guys – you got to beat them for 40 minutes,” he said. “We can get beat, but you got to beat ‘em for close to 40 minutes.”
Even though they broke the notorious streak that had hung over the team’s head for parts of two seasons, it could prove challenging to win another game this year.
The streak began Jan. 3, 2011 with a 51-47 loss to Old Dominion. It spanned 41 games with losses in 10 different states before they beat UNC Wilmington at home on Jan. 28. During that stretch, the United States captured Osama bin Laden, Prince William got hitched and Ashton Kutcher replaced Charlie Sheen on “Two and a Half Men.”
“The streak, or so the so-called streak, is kind of an interesting thing because other than one player and a couple of managers no one was here for,” all 41 losses, said Skerry, who said he never once mentioned the streak to his players. “[To win] was good for the guys that are new, to just get a taste of success.”
This year’s squad stumbled upon the right mixture of bad luck at the wrong time. The Tigers’ leading scorer from a season ago, Isiah Philmore, transferred to Xavier, and leading rebounder, Braxton Dupree, agreed to play in Israel – both before Skerry inherited the job in April.
Towson also lost Josh Brown, who averaged double-figures last year, to graduation. And the one returning starter, RaShawn Polk, was suspended after being charged with burglary, assault and destruction of property prior to the season, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“That’s sometimes the nature of the beast and you just got to try to get through it,” Skerry said.
That left Towson with only nine players under scholarship. Six are freshmen, leaving Skerry with a limited repertoire.
They opened the season with a 46-point drubbing by the University of Kansas en route to dropping 22 games in a row.
During the long losing streak, Skerry tried multiple tactics to motivate his players. He brought in Towson football head coach Rob Ambrose, whose team went from 1-10 in 2010 to 9-2 this past season, for a pep talk. He played videos before games to fire up his team. Every night, a new approach.
Skerry picked up his phone to ask his mentors for advice. Many were too afraid to give him a call during the losing skid, but not not Jamie Dixon, who Skerry assisted at Pitt before Towson hired him. Not Tom Herrion, who Skerry served under at the College of Charleston. And certainly not Jerry Wainwright.
Wainwright, the former head coach at UNC Wilmington, Richmond and DePaul, and a current assistant at Fresno State, advised Skerry to show footage of Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” showdown with George Foreman the night before the UNC Wilmington game.
The fight showcased Ali’s famous rope-a-dope boxing style. He leaned against the ropes, absorbing blows, then regrouped to win the bout. Skerry wanted to send the message to his guys that it was OK to get hit, as long as they didn’t get knocked out.
“It was inspiring just to see one of the greatest fighters,” sophomore forward Marcus Damas said. “He was down on the ropes and he kept fighting, and he ended up winning the fight. As far as losing, we were down. Coach kept saying there were two types of people – those who cover up and those who fight back. Ali fought back.”
Mirroring the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the Tigers appeared down and out midway through their game against UNC Wilmington. Trailing 23-30, Towson went on a 6-2 run to end the half. That’s when Skerry knew his guys were, “very, very hungry.”
Then Skerry put the game in the hands of lone senior Robert Nwankwo, the only player on the team who suffered through all 41 losses.
Nwankwo didn’t start against UNC Wilmington — for the first time all season — because Skerry was unhappy with his efforts in practice. He played sparingly in the first half.
With six minutes remaining, the score was knotted at 52. Nwankwo took over, playing like “a monster,” according to his coach. He scored five points and collected six rebounds, propelling his team to their first win of the season.
And like that, the longest losing streak in NCAA Division I men’s basketball was over.
“It was a lot of weight on your shoulders. You were anxious to get it over with. Sometimes it was hard to keep going,” Damas said.
He said the national attention the team was receiving insulting.
“People just encouraged me and told us to keep fighting. [My teammates and I] used it as motivation – any type of energy we used,” he said.
Added Skerry: “Adversity does build character…I do look at some of those guys and know they’re going to be stronger in the long term for it.”
Afterwards, the optimism towards the future was contagious at the Towson Center. But the team failed to capitalize, dropping five straight games to Hofstra, Drexel, VCU, JMU and Northeastern.
With remaining games against New Hampshire, Delaware and James Madison and the conference tournament, Towson could take a nine-game losing streak into next season.
By then, they’ll have new blood. Their highly-rated recruiting class includes the second-best player in Connecticut, Timajh Parker-Rivera; the second-best player in Delaware, Barrington Alston; Virginia All-State selection Jerome Hairston and the leading scorer in Virginia, Frank Mason.
And two transfers — Mike Burwell from South Florida and Jerrelle Benimon from Georgetown — will become eligible to play at the start of next season.
Skerry said recruits weren’t swayed by the losing streak. It helped that the team will begin playing in a new 5,000-seat facility, Tiger Arena, by the start of the 2013-2014 season.
“Getting good players to come visit us and come to Towson hasn’t been an issue at all. We have a lot to sell here with the campus, the location, the conference, the academics and then obviously the facility coming in. We expect to yearly sign as good of a class or the best in our league,” Skerry said.
Right now, it’s difficult to imagine a team that’s currently 1-27 becoming a CAA powerhouse.
With the incoming class and his team’s work ethic, Damas said he was confident the team would fare better next year. His coach has the same mindset, but will know for sure after the season.
“I’ll tell you in the summer when the new faces are here,” Skerry said.