TOWSON, Md. — There isn’t much the current Towson basketball team shares with its immediate predecessor.
There’s a first-year coach, a new staff, an unfamiliar roster and a sparkling facility on the way.
Only the losing — unremitting losing — remains.
“We talk about getting better every day and what we have to do to get better,” coach Pat Skerry said this week. “Until the end of the season, that’s going to be the focus. We’ll never talk about trying to win 20 games or 15 games or 10 games. We talk about what we have to do to be in position to win any game. That’s what we harp on. I think that’s the only way to get better.”
Nonetheless, the Tigers will attract some attention until they win one game, and understandably so.
With 33 consecutive losses, Towson is one setback shy of the Division I record for teams not transitioning to college basketball’s highest level. Sacramento State dropped 34 straight between 1997 and 1999. Towson (0-14, 0-2 CAA) visits Drexel (8-5, 0-2) on Wednesday and could potentially break the record Saturday when it travels to Old Dominion (7-7, 2-0).
(NJIT lost 51 consecutive games between 2007 and 2009, but that came while the Highlanders were moving from Division II to Division I. Towson could match that mark if it loses every game this season, including its CAA tournament opener).
“The good thing about basketball is you come out and get another opportunity every night, but games don’t transfer over so you have to bring it every night,” sophomore forward Erique Gumbs said. “When we bring good effort and get that close, it hurts a lot.”
Gumbs knows better than just about anyone. He’s the only Tiger to play in every game during the losing streak. He’s also the only current player to appear in a game for Towson last year.
Therein lies part of the intrigue for the school in the Baltimore suburbs, which began an extreme makeover for its basketball program last spring. That came less than five months after athletic director Mike Waddell was hired; he remembers watching Towson’s last win (at La Salle on Dec. 29, 2010) online from his old Cincinnati home unaware just how fleeting a moment it was.
“It wasn’t like I was thinking when we started to lose games in January that it was a start of a big streak,” Waddell said. “Look, anybody could have looked at our roster in November of last year and said it was challenged. You could probably tell by December we were not headed to ‘One Shining Moment.’ “
Former coach Pat Kennedy departed after the Tigers dropped their last 19 games of 2010-11 and became the first CAA team to go winless in the league. Skerry, a former Pittsburgh assistant, was hired, awarded a six-year contract and soon assembled an overhauled roster.
Star forward Isaiah Philmore transferred. Braxton Dupree, a former Maryland forward, left school with a year of eligibility remaining. Attrition continued into the fall, when likely starting shooting guard RaShawn Polk was dismissed from the team.
All the while, construction began on a 5,200-seat arena set to open in 2013. It will replace the adjacent Towson Center, which showed its age Monday when malfunctioning equipment prevented the school from deploying bleachers behind the benches. No matter; the intimate gathering of 729 comfortably fit into the other half of the seats.
“We have a silver cloud that has a dark lining right now,” Waddell said. “We’re moving forward with every great intention. We’ve done everything we can do on the court and off. The fact remains that Pat was brought in, and he has to take over a program that has graduated three out of the last 16 kids that have come in. He has two kids on the roster he recruited himself.”
It is, at best, a limited collection of talent — and young. Of the nine players who appeared in Monday’s 57-48 loss to Northeastern, only one is a junior or senior.
It was little surprise such inexperience kicked in when the Tigers closed to 41-39 with 8:20 to play, their hopes fizzling with six turnovers and two points over the next seven minutes.
The turnover issue (18 on Monday, slightly better than the team’s average of 19.4) is merely the most glaring shortcoming. The only categories in which Towson ranks better than sixth in the CAA are connected to offensive rebounding, a skill the Tigers receive ample opportunity to perfect.
“I’m still jacked up about what the ceiling is here,” Skerry said. “What exasperates me is we have a hard time sustaining winning plays. That exasperates me. I like the practices more than the games, there’s no question about that. But until we sustain it, it’s going to be hard against clubs at this level.”
The skid won’t last forever. Towson consistently plays hard, if not particularly well, and it proved pesky in last week’s loss 57-50 at Virginia. Waddell knows the slide isn’t the fault of Skerry, who already has signed a well-regarded four-man recruiting class and added a pair of transfers from the Big East (former Georgetown guard Jerrelle Benimon and ex-South Florida guard Mike Burwell) for next season.
Those around the program insist they see a bright future. Players, though, would prefer it to arrive before Towson finds itself in the history books for the wrong reasons.
“I just look at it as a new day each time,” Gumbs said. “You can’t forget and you’re not going to forget, but you have to take the positive and try to carry that over more than the negative and you have to start doing things to cut the negative out and eventually something’s got to give.”