When the NCAA tagged Towson last June with a 2013 postseason ban for low Academic Progress Rate scores, some chuckled while others took offense.
The penalty seemed tactless, unnecessary and borderline farcical — undue insult added to an injury that still stings Pat Skerry to this day. The Tigers had completed a season of ignominy just three months earlier. In Skerry’s first season as a Division-1 head coach, the Baltimore-based school finished 1-31 while suffering through a 30-game losing streak that carried over from the previous season.
Skerry would have been justified in submitting his resignation papers then and there, as did the Pat who preceded him (Kennedy) the year before.
It’s good he abstained, as his resolve has earned him authorship of the single greatest comeback story in the college basketball library.
Skerry’s Tigers completed the largest one-year turnaround in NCAA history on Saturday, improving upon last year’s record by 17.5 games. Towson scored a 67-64 victory over Hofstra in the season finale to finish 18-13 (13-5 Colonial Athletic Association), good for second place in the conference. The 17.5-game improvement eclipsed the plus-17 turnaround shared by Mercer (2002-03) and UTEP (2003-04).
Towson unloaded most of the core of its one-win team in a full-scale house cleaning last spring. Robert Nwankwo graduated, Erique Gumbs left the program due to a medical condition and Deon Jones and Jervon Pressley opted to transfer. The exodus left Marcus Damas in his familiar, secondary scoring role and sophomore Kris Walden, who was overused out of necessity as a freshman, in a reduced capacity. The rest of the puzzle was left for Skerry to creatively fill. And lucky for him, the centerpiece lay right under his nose.
Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon will forever have a favorable place in history. The former, sparingly-used Hoya was the saving grace for the Tigers’ revival. The do-everything ace and double-double machine executed on the floor what Skerry micro-managed on his clipboard, serving as the on-court catalyst of Towson’s breakthrough year. Trey Burke will likely win the Wooden Award granted to the nation’s most outstanding player, but Benimon, judging by his worth to his team, is the most valuable player in college hoops.
In the year he sat out, with several other variables constant, the Tigers won once in 32 games. With Benimon as the focal point of the team one year later, Towson became a legitimate NCAA tournament contender short of eligibility. No other college player, acclaimed or otherwise, has a résumé bullet quite as powerful as that. Of course, no one else has spearheaded the biggest turnaround in college basketball history in his first season at a new school.
Towson won’t participate in postseason play this year, but it exceeded as far as performance most of those teams that will. Forget about eligibility. The Tigers would gladly cash in their tournament ticket for an indelible storyline like this.