CIO… the Colonial Athletic AssociationPosted by Brian Goodman on January 23rd, 2013
A Spotlight On Towson Athletic Director Mike Waddell
It’s Sunday morning and I send a direct message via Twitter to Towson athletic director Mike Waddell. It’s probably not the most conventional way to request a five-minute interview that will turn into a half-hour, but Waddell isn’t the most conventional A.D. Minutes later, Waddell messages back: “Call Now,” along with his cell phone number. And seconds later, another message: “6 minutes response time. Lol.” Think of Waddell as a first-responder – the fire-truck bowling down the street, sirens blaring, a crisis to confront. His emergency here is public relations. The most accessible athletic director in Division I athletics – unofficially, at least – lives to market the once-sorry program that he’s helping turn around in a blink. His impact since taking over Towson athletics in September 2010 is far-reaching, but let’s just focus on basketball, which, as he notes, is “the one sport that can be a revenue generator” in the Colonial Athletic Association.
After a 26-point win over James Madison on Saturday, Towson is 10-9 and 4-1 in the CAA. The school hasn’t had a winning record this late in the season since 1999-2000, which, technically, is last century. Bill Clinton was still in the Oval Office, not at the Golden Globes. The Tigers are not eligible for the CAA Tournament or any postseason play this season because of academic sanctions which go back to the previous regime. It’s a shame too, because Towson could be one of the best stories in college basketball. After a 1-31 season, the Tigers are one of the top teams in the CAA. Who knows if they’d win the league title, but CBS would practically explode if it had the chance to craft one of those feel-good segments you see every March. Inevitably, that segment would have to start with the vision of Waddell.
Following the 15th consecutive losing season for Towson hoops, Waddell said goodbye to coach Pat Kennedy. He looked at his own athletic program, at the coaches in charge of the sports that were succeeding, and aimed to fill the men’s basketball opening with a gritty, like-minded candidate. “Who are we going to bring in who can grind the way these people grind?” Waddell asked himself. The A.D. says the first person on his wish list was Pat Skerry, then an assistant from Jamie Dixon’s staff at Pittsburgh. Skerry grew up just outside of Boston and has the hearty accent to prove it. More importantly, he expected success and knew there wouldn’t be shortcuts to attain it. Waddell hired Skerry, who hopped into a kitchen lacking any utensils last season. Year One was an expected disaster, but Skerry has quickly brought in enough talent – including three Big East transfers – to now compete.
The roster isn’t home grown, but it looks scary good for the future. Barring the unforeseen, only fifth-leading scorer Bilal Dixon will be gone next year, which could be a new era for Towson basketball. In addition to boasting a deep roster featuring do-everything forward Jerrelle Benimon and flourishing guard Jerome Hairston, Towson will open a sparkling 5,200-seat arena, it will be eligible again for postseason competition, and it will have the CAA Tournament in its backyard for the first time. George Mason, Delaware and Drexel will again be among the favorites to win the CAA next year, but Towson will be more than just a dark horse pick to claim its first Colonial title, at First Mariner Bank Arena in Baltimore.
Exciting stuff for Towson, but it’s still all a process. The Tigers, fresh off a miserable year, are averaging just 1,430 fans per home game – the second lowest mark in the CAA (in front of only Georgia State). That number is “not where it needs to be,” Skerry said. Waddell believes there’s an opening for Baltimore fans – between the end of the Ravens’ season and the beginning of the Orioles’ – to become addicted to Towson hoops. The new arena will certainly help test that theory. Skerry and Waddell are similar in that they both have unwavering confidence and the willingness to dissect why something can work rather than why it hasn’t in the past. They’re also quite different, and that goes beyond their rooting interests for the AFC Championship game (Waddell a Ravens fan, watched the game at the home of the Skerry’s, who are pro-Patriots).
Skerry tries to win each day as it comes. He said players don’t even know who’s on the schedule past the next game. Waddell – who once scheduled a two-for-one series against Oregon State so that Towson could host President Obama, the brother-in-law of Beavers coach Craig Robinson – worries more about the big picture. “He’s an animal,” Skerry said of Waddell. “I’m a day-by-day-guy.” On Sunday morning, after 12 tweets promoting Towson athletics, Waddell writes: “Just watched this segment from @60Minutes on the ascent of rock climber Alex Honnold – All I can type is “Wow” #unreal.” When I reach him on the phone that morning, Waddell immediately brings up that 60 Minutes segment he had just watched. “There’s nothing in my life that I will ever be that good at,” Waddell says. Maybe nothing so skill-driven and tangible, but he and Skerry are doing just fine in the early stages of turning around the Tigers.
- Northeastern (11-7 overall, 6-0 in the CAA): Alright, Huskies, I’ll cave. After starting CAA play with six wins, there’s no disputing that Northeastern earns the top spot on the power rankings. Last week I expressed concerns about their rebounding, but the Huskies outboarded Delaware on Saturday en route to a 74-70 road victory. Northeastern has now defeated the preseason’s top three teams, and has also beaten upstart Towson. The Huskies aren’t a fluke, and they’re getting contributions from both veterans and youngsters. Sophomore Quincy Ford is coming on too – the rangy swingman scored a combined 41 points in two wins last week.
- Towson (10-9, 5-1): The culture is changing at Towson (see story below). The Tigers beat Delaware and James Madison to move over .500. It’s the first time the Tigers have a winning record this late in the season since 1999-2000. Obligatory Gas Price Check: Roughly $1.20 back then. After a mutually patchy first half against JMU, Towson blew the Dukes out of the building in the final 20 minutes. Freshman point guard Jerome Hairston, who matched two teammates with a game-high 13 points, said it was the first time he felt the Tigers put their feet on the gas to put a team away. He suspects they’ll be better at it now that they’ve done it once. Watch out.
- George Mason (11-7, 4-2): The Patriots’ come-and-go defense had an on week, holding JMU to 57 and Hofstra to 46 in a pair of home wins. The offense remains the same: Sherrod Wright will get his 20-or-so points and everything else is a wild card. Freshman forward Marko Gujanicic hit a pair of big three-pointers in the second half against JMU, finishing with 10 points and giving Mason the secondary threat it needed. Against Hofstra, no one joined Wright in double-figures, but that doesn’t matter when you hold an opponent below 50. Hofstra shot just 23 percent for the game, and Mason deserves some credit for that.
- Delaware (8-10, 3-2 in the CAA): An 0-2 week drops the Hens a few of notches from the top spot they held last week. While the losses came against Northeastern and Towson – a combined 11-1 in the CAA this year – both were in Delaware’s own Bob Carpenter Center. Losing at home is a good way to squander prime seeding for the CAA tournament. Now the Hens need to go on the road and steal one from James Madison or Drexel to make up for it. Both are winnable games, but winning on another’s team court is always more difficult. The Blue Hens’ defense is not at an elite level, and that’s what usually wins the Colonial. Even with all their scoring options, it’s tough to see them winning three straight in Richmond if they don’t start to defend.
- Drexel (6-11, 2-3): The Dragons won at William & Mary to stop a three-game losing skid, and have winnable games at Hofstra and vs. Georgia State this week. Still without top scorer Damion Lee to a leg injury, Drexel hasn’t hit 60 points in three games. But defense alone can win against the lower-level CAA teams. The Dragons have to keep grinding away until they’re healthy and in rhythm. It’s tough to say if Drexel is still a viable candidate to win this league, like everyone projected it to in the preseason. The Dragons are inconsistent, they lack depth, and it’s clear that other Colonial teams are simply just playing better. But if you’re going to draw a line at where legitimate championship contenders ends, draw it after Drexel, not before.
- Georgia State (8-11, 3-3): Two wins moves Georgia State up to the fulcrum point of the power poll, but the Panthers are not a threat to contend for the league title. For one, the Panthers are ineligible because they are leaving the CAA for the Sun Belt next year. They probably wouldn’t be a serious contender anyway, but they’re showing the type of improvement that this column predicted last week. GSU made 23-of-25 free throws in a win against William & Mary and then a solid if unspectacular 16-of-22 at Old Dominion. Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins has hit his stride, scoring 20-plus points in the last three games. He’s now averaging close to 14 per game this season.
- James Madison (9-11, 3-3): JMU lost at George Mason in a game that was close for 36 minutes and then lost at Towson in a game that was close for only 20. Coach Matt Brady’s mantra this year has been to fight for 40 minutes, but JMU seems inherently unable to do so. Their efforts vary from half to half; they’ve only played well in both halves of a game twice this season. The Dukes, who are 1-7 in true road games, play five of their next six in the comfy Convocation Center, where they are 5-2 (the two losses by one point apiece against George Washington and Richmond, both of the Atlantic 10).
- Hofstra (5-13, 2-3): Hofstra stays in the eighth spot by merely not getting blown out last week. The Pride lost at Northeastern and at Mason, and scored just 106 points combined. We mentioned in this space last week that the Pride has reinvented itself by playing ugly, muck-it-up basketball. So even when the offensive numbers are that unsightly, it isn’t far from the plan.
- UNC-Wilmington (7-10, 2-3): The Seahawks have won consecutive CAA games for the first time in over a year, beating George Mason two weekends ago and then Old Dominion in their only game last week. UNCW beating Mason and ODU? Is it the Brad Brownell era again? Not quite, as we know that the Patriots are inconsistent and the Monarchs are now weaklings. Now comes a brutal stretch in which UNCW is on the road for five straight games. This is a team that hasn’t won a road game all season, so things could get ugly.
- William & Mary (7-10, 1-5): The losing streak has reached seven, and W&M’s only win within the CAA has been against Old Dominion – the one team ranked lower than the Tribe. It seems like a distant time when W&M was in the top three of these power rankings, feasting on weak a schedule and scoring in a multitude of ways. The Tribe hasn’t touched 60 points in any of its last three games, and gets Northeastern, Towson and Delaware – three upper-echelon teams – next.
- Old Dominion (2-16, 0-6): What more is there to write about Old Dominion? The Monarchs’ last win came three days before Christmas against, surprisingly enough, Virginia. It’s been a whole batch of bad since then. The team is ineligible for the CAA tournament, and not worth over-analyzing at this point.
- George Mason at Towson, 7 PM, Wednesday (MASN): Towson hasn’t beaten George Mason since 1992 (19 straight games), but if you haven’t noticed, the Tigers are snapping a lot of those “Haven’t done X since X” situations this season. Towson forward Jerrelle Benimon and George Mason guard Sherrod Wright are the leaders for the league’s Player of the Year award. If one has a big game in beating the other, he can grab the upper hand in the race.
- Delaware at James Madison, 7 PM, Wednesday: The game was moved from Thursday after it was taken off television, but it still shapes up to be one of the better battles in the CAA this week. Madison is solid at home, and the teams have split the last 10 meetings.
- George Mason at Northeastern, 8 PM, Sunday (CSN): Mason’s second televised game of the week is perhaps more important in the grand scheme of the conference race, seeing as both the Patriots and Huskies are eligible for the conference tournament and the coveted lone bye. Undefeated Northeastern leads the conference, of course, and can create even more separation with a home win here.