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Defense helps Towson as they gain experience

February 7, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

BOSTON – Pat Skerry’s reaction told it all.

After Northeastern forward Scott Eatherton backed down a Towson defender for a basket and made it look easy, Skerry’s reaction was as if no defensive effort was made. The Tigers are normally a good defensive team, but they struggled there in a loss at Northeastern on Wednesday night, and that put too much pressure on an offense that still has a lot of room to grow right now.

All night long, Northeastern basically got what they wanted at the offensive end against the Tigers. They shot 60 percent from the field, including a 6-8 mark on three-pointers. That also included shooting at a 72.2 percent clip in the first half, when the Tigers dug themselves a hole that left a late rally as being too little, too late.

“For us to beat them, we’ve got to guard them, and we didn’t guard them tonight,” Skerry said.

As Skerry went on to note, the Tigers entered the night leading the conference in field goal percentage defense, three-point field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin. The only thing they don’t do is force turnovers, which is mainly a function of style of play as they don’t press teams. They are the top defensive team in the conference, a key anytime, but especially when you have an inexperienced team that lost a lot of production from the prior season. Northeastern beat them in all facets, adding a 31-25 rebounding edge to the aforementioned shooting numbers. Oddly enough, the Huskies gave the ball away 15 times on the evening.

The Tigers have gone through their share of growing pains this season, which was to be expected. They started out 7-1 in non-conference, winning seven straight after losing at Alabama in the opener. After that, they took some losses when the December portion was much tougher, as they took on the likes of Temple, Georgetown and La Salle. The end of January was the first time since that seven-game winning streak where they won two in a row, with the second coming at Hofstra, so there’s reason to believe this team is gaining confidence.

The win at Hofstra was a high-scoring affair, with the Tigers putting up 86 points. That’s their second-best total on the season behind the 97 they put up against Goucher, a Division III team. While they appear to be gaining confidence and are making strides, they can’t let that come at the expense of other facets of the game, especially the one that Skerry has emphasized from the minute he took over the program.

“One thing I was worried about with a young team as a coach is when you do start playing a little faster and scoring, you can’t get away from what really allows you to have success, which is guarding,” Skerry reflected.

The youth shows more in the Tigers’ offense. Junior Josh Ivory is the only Tiger with more assists than turnovers on the season, while the Tigers shoot just 41 percent from the field. Young perimeter players Byron Hawkins and Mike Morsell, the latter of whom has come on of late and was the CAA Rookie of the Week last week, have grown as the season has come along. It doesn’t help that their top holdover, junior Four McGlynn, has been inconsistent, especially since conference play began as his scoring is down significantly. The challenge for him is that he needs to play off others to get shots, and with a very different cast around him now, that task is markedly different than it was last year.

Thus far, the Tigers have had nine different starting lineups this season, a function of the youth as well as game inexperience. Ten different players have started at least one game; in CAA play, that number drops to eight. In addition, no player averages 30 minutes a game overall, while only Timajh Parker-Rivera averages over that in CAA play (barely, at 30.1).

Slowly, they appear to be finding out some combinations to go with, perhaps notably settling on having leading scorer and rebounder John Davis come off the bench because he has had trouble defending without fouling. Skerry said the staff and players have a better feel for everyone’s game, and that should show up more later on than it is right now, and there are signs of it. In CAA play, McGlynn and Hawkins both have more assists than turnovers, and Morsell has scored in double figures in three straight games after doing so only twice all season before this stretch.

Towson is in the midst of a stretch with four of five on the road. If they manage through this – they still have to go to Drexel and College of Charleston – they finish with three of four at home, although it’s tough in terms of who they play (Hofstra, UNCW, at William & Mary and Delaware). They could position themselves to end the regular season well, then be a team no one wants to face in Baltimore next month.

Towson defends well enough on most nights to win games if they can score just enough. With the room to grow that this team has, in time they should score enough more often to complement that.

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