Some might assume that Towson University men's basketball head coach Pat Skerry is in a position to relax and enjoy his team's 6-1 start after receiving some national recognition this week.
Not a chance.
He's too busy trying to navigate the Tigers' stretch of eight games in 19 days that includes the two longest road trips of the season and contests against two top local rivals just before final exams. And the schedule only gets more difficult after that.
So, how is Skerry going to guide his team through this physically and emotionally draining part of the season?
"That's a great question," he said from the team bus heading to Dulles Airport, where the team would catch a plane for games in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dec. 1-2. "It's the same question my [athletic director]keeps asking me. I'm not sure that I know the answer. We try to schedule good games to get ready for conference play. It's definitely a concern, but you need a good mix of practices and games. Players like to play games, and it reveals a lot about where you are as a team."
Competing in the nationally televised Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic, the Tigers open against La Salle, which has an RPI among the nation's top 50. Towson is coming off a three-game sweep and tournament championship at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida. That performance propelled Towson to the program's first appearance among the nation's top 25 mid-majors in this week's CollegeInsider.com poll.
"I don't think the guys on this bus have paid much attention to that," said Skerry, who is in his seventh season at Towson. "They'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime. That's the type of guys they are. But when you take a step back and look at it, we're not the eyesore nationally that we were when I got here. Hopefully we've built something that's sustainable and will allow us to compete at a high level year in and year out. Then, if you get a little luck, that's when the real magic can happen."
One could argue Skerry has already performed magic at Towson. After winning one game his first season, he guided the Tigers to the largest single-season turnaround in NCAA Division I history by going 18-13 in 2012-13. Towson has won 20 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in its Division I history, made two postseason appearances in the past four years, and since 2012-13 won more games in Colonial Athletic Association play than any other team.
His players are not surprised by their strong start this season.
"I feel like this is pretty much what we expected," said sophomore guard Zane Martin, the team's scoring leader at 16.7 points per game. "We are an older team with a group of seniors that has been here before. As long as we concern ourselves first with just trying to get better each day, the sky is the limit for us."
Senior guard Mike Morsell, a preseason second-team all-conference selection and the CAA Player of the Week after earning tournament MVP honors at the Gulf Coast Showcase, agrees with Martin.
"I think everyone expected this," said Morsell, who averages 12.9 points as one of three Tigers scoring in double figures. "We are a really good team, with really talented players and a lot of depth."
Towson has rolled to six straight wins since a season-opening, three-point loss at Old Dominion Nov. 10. The win streak includes victories against an improved Loyola team, Penn and Georgia Southern, which is ranked 17th in the same mid-major poll in which the Tigers are ranked 23rd.
Skerry credited the team's success to its willingness to share the ball, good open shooting and a newly implemented pressure defense. Towson averages eight 3-pointers per game and ranks third nationally in 3-point defense. But Skerry knows the toughest part of Towson's schedule lies ahead.
"This group has high expectations," said Skerry, who wants his team to foul less and reduce its turnover percentage. "As a coach, you obviously want to win every game, but what we can't lose sight of is that we need to keep getting better. If this is the best we are going to be, that's not good either. Hopefully by challenging ourselves with a tough nonconference schedule, it will get us ready for the CAA."
Challenging themselves may be an understatement. After taking on La Salle, Towson faces either Manhattan or Holy Cross Dec. 2 in Belfast before returning home to face a Morgan State team picked to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Dec. 6 and a UMBC squad that should challenge for an America East title Dec. 9.
Then it's exam break followed by games at Oakland, ranked 15th in the mid-major poll; at Atlantic Coast Conference foe Pitt; and at the College of Charleston, ranked ninth in the mid-major poll and the preseason CAA favorite.
"We feel like any game we play is winnable," Morsell said. "We are going to go out and try to win every game. If we play all good teams, we're going to show up and play hard and see what happens."
For Skerry, who has asked his players to focus on making individual sacrifices for the good of the team and to limit off-court distractions, it's all part of a master plan that has served him well to this point.
"Conference play starts in about a month, so we have about a half dozen games to iron some things out and then the season moves really fast," he said. "When you are in a great mid-major conference like ours, the games become very magnified. We just have to continue to have that sacrificial attitude and limit distractions that can hurt the team on the court."
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