Roughly 1,900 miles separate Towson, Maryland, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. That’s a distance Zane Martin has traversed twice in his college basketball odyssey.
Martin, a preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association selection, begins his second stint with the Towson Tigers. He’ll end his college career where it began, though the route was circuitous.
Martin spent the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons at Towson, blowing up as a sophomore to the tune of 19.8 points per game. He earned Second Team All-CAA honors, joining a collection of talent that includes five players currently on NBA contracts.
In the 2018 offseason, Martin joined another sizable group: He was one of the 704 Division I players transferring that year; he landed in New Mexico.
“It was a culture shock for me,” Martin said. “But the fans, The Pit [New Mexico’s famed home arena], everybody there welcomed me with open arms. It was a good experience for me.”
Sitting out the 2018-19 season, Martin played well for the Lobos in 2019-20. He broke into the starting lineup midway through the campaign, and emerged as New Mexico’s most explosive scorer over a stretch of Mountain West Conference competition, posting 18 or more points in 4-of-5 games.
Martin said he grew as a playmaker while at New Mexico, an assertion that his career-best 3.1 assists per game reinforce.
But while the sabbatical out West was positive for Martin, the Philadelphia native said he was ready to come back to the East Coast. Specifically, he was ready to return to Towson.
“I wanted to be somewhere comfortable. I wanted to be in a place where I knew I was wanted, where I knew the coaching staff and where I could play my game,” Martin said. “This was the best fit.”
And Towson, in turn, had a spot perfectly suited to a combo guard of Martin’s potential. The Tigers replace Brian Fobbs, who emerged as leading scorer in the two seasons Martin was in Albuquerque at 17.5 and 16.3 points per game.
How Martin reintroduces the scoring punch he showed in his first go-around at Towson is among the key storylines both for Martin in his last college season, and for a Tigers bunch with realistic designs on a CAA championship.
As far as prolific scoring guards go, Towson coach Pat Skerry made a lofty comparison of Martin.
“He plays like James Harden,” Skerry said.
A parallel to Harden, the winner of the last three NBA scoring titles, isn’t a modest compliment. But echoing Martin’s own assessment, Skerry praised other facets of the guard’s game that have developed in the past two-and-a-half years.
“The one thing he’s done a really good job of, playing in a high-level program under Paul Weir at New Mexico, he’s become a really good passer, especially off the ball-screen,” Skerry said. “We’ve got more shooting and ability with the ball than we’ve ever had.”
Martin backed up Skerry’s evaluation of the team offense, saying the Tigers shoot more effectively as a team now than in his first run — particularly from the three-point line. The added passing element of Martin’s own game promises to bolster Towson’s scoring opportunities off of assists, an area in which they ranked 293rd nationally a season ago.
Towson basketball and Martin do indeed look like the ideal fit, but getting back together “wasn’t easy.”
“[Skerry] was disappointed I left the first time I was here,” Martin said. “He let me know, and we hashed it out. The relationship has been great ever since. It never wasn’t good, but that we had that good conversation made things better.”
Reforming that bond could be the catalyst that powers Towson to its first NCAA Tournament in 30 years. It might also drive Martin’s NBA aspirations.
While the Tigers prepare to start their campaign amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — “It’s definitely not normal,” Martin said — the peculiarity of 2020 pushed the NBA draft back to November.
Martin caught some of the proceedings, which included College of Charleston guard Grant Riller’s selection by the Charlotte Hornets. Riller became the fifth among the 10 First-and-Second All-CAA selections in 2018 to join an NBA roster along with Justin Wright-Foreman, Nathan Knight, Jarrell Brantley, and Devontae Cacok.
“I’m very confident, I feel like I can be like those guys,” Martin said. “But it all starts off with winning games. I think that will come.”
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.