Pat Skerry gifted members of his Towson men’s basketball program with some accessories, but it has little to do with capturing a share of last year’s Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title.
In the summer, the coach distributed black rubber wristbands imprinted with a single word in yellow and capital letters: “FINISH.” The simple swag is a reminder of how last season’s squad fell shockingly as the top seed to Delaware in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament and was denied the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1991.
“We’ve got to finish the job,” Skerry said during the team’s media day Thursday afternoon at SECU Arena in Towson. “That’s what we’re defined by, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. I have no idea if that’s going to happen, but do I think it can happen? Yeah, 1,000%. But we’ve got to be everything. We’ve got to finish the play, finish the drill, finish the lift. That’s got to be our mindset.”
The wristbands’ exhortations have apparently rubbed off on the players.
“It has been a point of emphasis,” senior power forward Charles Thompson said. “We always have them on, day in and day out. They’re a constant reminder to just finish. So I think this year, we’re really going to put an emphasis on finishing what we started.”
The Tigers seem poised to accomplish that mission. From last season’s team that went 25-9, they return their top four scorers in graduate student shooting guard Nicolas Timberlake (14.4 points per game), redshirt senior small forward Cam Holden (13.5), Thompson (10.8) and senior point guard Jason Gibson (9.8); their top three rebounders (Holden at 7.9, Thompson at 6.7 and Timberlake at 4.4); and four of their top five producers in assists (Holden at 3.1, Gibson at 2.4, Timberlake at 1.9 and Thompson at 1.3).
Add graduate student small forward Sekou Sylla, the reigning Division II Player of the Year from Nova Southeastern, and a pair of transfers in graduate student shooting guard Nygal Russell (Southeast Missouri State) and redshirt freshman point guard Ryan Conway (Seton Hall), and it’s easy to see why experts like CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein are high on Towson’s potential.
“It’s simply amazing in this climate that Towson returns four double figure scorers from a 25-win team,” he wrote in a tweet. “A rarity in 2022. NCAA Tournament or bust.”
Holden doesn’t mind the outside expectations but insisted that he and his teammates are not hung up on that chatter, last year’s run to their first regular-season championship since the 1993-94, or the CAA coaches’ voting that placed the Tigers at the top of the league’s preseason poll.
“We can’t resume from last year,” he said. “We’ve got to start from what it took for us to get to that point last year. We’ve got to start brick by brick and day by day to get to that point where we can have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. I feel like we have the ingredients to do that, but I feel like we can’t say that we’re going to be in the NCAA Tournament right now because it’s too early.”
That 69-56 loss to Delaware, which went on to win the conference tournament and represent the CAA in the NCAA Tournament, might have been especially troubling for Thompson, who was limited to 13 points and six rebounds by a sprained right ankle he injured in a tournament-opening 68-61 victory over No. 9 seed Northeastern. But Thompson said he and his teammates have moved past that setback.
“We’ve got to have short-term memory,” he said. “… We try to focus on what’s coming up ahead of us. We’re more focused on that than what had happened. It does sometimes linger with us, but when that happens, we make sure that we bring back the focus.”
In the current era of the transfer portal, returning four starters is a rare feat. While shooting guard Terry Nolan Jr. turned pro and left in August to play in Portugal, Holden elected to return for one more shot at getting Towson to the promised land.
Gibson, Holden, Thompson and Timberlake are the team captains and complement each other. Skerry, who is entering his 12th season at the helm, quipped that while Holden and Timberlake hold their teammates accountable for errors, Gibson and Thompson are more likely to nurture those same teammates.
“We’re all pretty close, and we have great chemistry,” Gibson said. “We were talking at the end of last season how we were going to be here again and how we want to do it this time and win it.”
Added Skerry: “In this day and age, it means a lot that they came back, and it means a lot that they came back for the right reasons. And they also came back knowing that not one guy is going to get 25 points and the rest of them are going to stand around. I think there’s a mutual respect to play the right way and be a part of winning.”
Besides Nolan’s 9.7 points, 3.7 assists, 1.7 steals per game, the Tigers will miss shooting guard Anthony Rizzuto (7.4 points) and power forward Juwan Gray (6.3 points, 4 rebounds), who added size to the team’s interior defense. But the hope is that Sylla (22.4 points and 10.4 rebounds), Russell (7.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists) and Conway (two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection) can fill the void.
Holden said he intends to use the memory of that loss to Delaware as motivation for the upcoming season.
“It was right there last year, but this year, we’re on a different route,” he said. “We were close, and we know how it feels. So this time, we plan on finishing the drill and getting this team to the NCAA Tournament.”
Albany at Towson
Monday, Nov. 7, 7 p.m.