The college basketball season typically brings a few surprises, but as the new campaign tips off, several state teams look ready for March Madness.
The Towson men are the preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship and earn the program's first NCAA tournament berth in 23 years. At Maryland, the Terrapin men and women should join the Tigers in the postseason. And to the east of College Park, the Navy women are becoming a perennial NCAA team.
Two seasons after posting a nation-worst 1-31 record, the Towson Tigers are the preseason choice to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship and earn an automatic NCAA tournament berth. The Tigers set an NCAA record for single-season improvement by going from one win and last in the CAA during the 2011-12 season to 18 victories and tied for second place in the conference during the 2012-13 season. The architect of that turnaround, third-year head coach Pat Skerry, welcomes back four starters from last year's 18-13 team.
"We embrace those expectations," Skerry said. "It's a little different being the hunted, where you have to take everyone's best shot."
The Tigers' top player is senior forward Jerrelle Benimon. A transfer from Georgetown and the reigning CAA Player of the Year, Benimon averaged 17.1 points per game and was the nation's third-leading rebounder (11.2) during the 2012-13 season. He was also tied for second nationally with 20 double-doubles.
"Jerelle's ballhandling and his shooting range have improved," Skerry said. "He's got team and individual goals that he's determined to reach."
Benimon will have plenty of support. The solid production of senior forward Marcus Damas (11.4 points, 5.3 rebounds per game last season) and sophomore point guard Jerome Hairston (9.9 points) will be augmented by Four McGlynn, a Vermont transfer who was the 2011-12 America East Rookie of the Year and sat out the 2012-13 season.
The nonleague schedule is difficult, especially with consecutive November games against perennial NCAA participants Temple, Villanova and Kansas. But the Tigers will play their CAA postseason tournament 15 minutes from campus at the Baltimore Arena, and the advantage of playing close to home could make a big difference.
"I'd like us to be really good early, because we've got a tough schedule," said Skerry, whose Tigers opened the brand-new SECU Arena with early-season games against Navy, Morgan State and Temple. "I know we better be really good in March. But there are a lot of minefields to navigate along this journey."
During Mark Turgeon's third season at the helm, Maryland appears ready to break through and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign. The Terrapins, who are playing their final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference before moving to the Big Ten, return three starters from the 2012-13 team, which finished 25-13, beat NCAA quarterfinalist Duke twice and reached the NIT semifinals.
Junior guard Dez Wells will be an indispensable player for the Terrapins. A transfer from Xavier, who was moved to point guard after a preseason injury to Seth Allen, Wells averaged a team-leading 13.1 points and 3.0 assists per game during the 2012-13 season. Joining him in the backcourt will be junior guard Nick Faust (9.4 points). Sophomores Charles Mitchell and Jake Layman will play key roles for Maryland, who will travel to Ohio State Dec. 4 for the ACC/Big Ten challenge.
It's a new day at Loyola. Longtime assistant coach G.G. Smith has succeeded Jimmy Patsos, who is now at Siena. The Greyhounds are also in a new conference, having moved to the Patriot League after 24 seasons in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
"The Patriot League was the best move," Smith said. "The chance to develop new rivalries with Navy and American is good for us. It's a great academic conference. And having guys like Mike Muscala (Bucknell) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) get taken in the NBA Draft is great for the league."
The Greyhounds are picked to finish fifth in their new, 10-team league. Loyola lost career 1,000-point scorers Erik Etherly and Robert Olson from the 2012-13 team, which finished 23-12 and reached the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament. But the Greyhounds return their floor general, senior guard Dylon Cormier. A Cardinal Gibbons graduate, Cormier led Loyola in points (16.4), assists (2.5) and steals (1.8) per game last season, when he was named to the All-MAAC first team.
"Dylon will be our team's heart and soul," said Smith, who was named the Greyhounds' head coach in early April. "He brings that Baltimore toughness that we like to see."
Mount St. Mary's will try to build on its best season in a decade. The Mountaineers went 18-14 a year ago, and advanced to the Northeast Conference championship game before losing to Long Island University-Brooklyn. Coach Jamion Christian's club was picked sixth in the conference's preseason poll, but could surprise some people and finish higher.
A trio of senior guards is expected to carry the team. Rashad Whack averaged a team-leading 13.9 points per game and also had 67 steals during the 2012-13 season. Sam Prescott (11.1 points) and Julian Norfleet, who averaged 10.8 points and 3.2 assists per game last season, will help guide the Mount against a difficult November slate, which includes games at West Virginia, Villanova, Brigham Young and preseason top five pick Michigan State.
Morgan State welcomes back three starters from last year's 17-15 team, which finished third in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Coach Todd Bozeman's Bears, picked to finish second in the league, will face a tough early-season schedule, which includes Ohio State, Towson, Ohio University, La Salle and Maryland.
The return of several key contributors should help Morgan hold its own against that difficult nonconference slate. Senior guard Justin Black was the team's leader in scoring (14.2 points) and assists (2.9) per game last season. Black's backcourt mate, senior Anthony Hubbard (11.4 points, team-leading 6.5 rebounds), and 7-foot-2 senior center Ian Chiles (9.3 points) are also expected to contribute as the Bears try to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Seeking Better Times
The state's four other Division I programs will try to bounce back from subpar seasons.
Coppin State (8-24) returns its two best players from a year ago. Senior forward Michael Murray led Ron "Fang" Mitchell-coached Eagles in points (12.4) and rebounds (8.9) per game for the 2012-13 season, and classmate Andre Armstrong (12.0 points) was close behind. Junior point guard Taariq Cephas also returns to a squad that faces NCAA perennials Michigan and Gonzaga during the season's first month.
UMBC (8-23) lost leading scorer Ryan Cook, but has two key returnees in senior forward Chase Plummer (11.8 points per game last season) and senior forward/center Brett Roseboro, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game before missing the second half because of injury. It should be an easier road for the Retrievers and second-year head coach Aki Thomas, who took over after Randy Monroe resigned before the 2012-13 season.
Navy brings back all five starters from a 2012-13 team that went 8-23. Coach Ed DeChellis' Midshipmen will count on junior forward Worth Smith, who led the team in points (10.2) and rebounds (5.4) per game last season. The talented backcourt of sophomore Tilman Dunbar and junior Brandon Venturini could help Navy, coming off a last-place Patriot League finish, move up a few notches.
Despite falling to 2-26 last season, Maryland-Eastern Shore loaded its nonconference schedule. The Hawks will travel to Iowa, Oregon State, Purdue, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State before conference play begins. Head coach Frankie Allen welcomes back two prominent players: junior guard Kyree Jones (13.6 points, 2.5 assists per game during the 2012-13 season) and senior forward Troy Snyder (11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds).