If all goes according to plan Wednesday night — and we all know how fragile a phrase “if all goes according to plan” is here in 2020 — Pat Skerry will stroll a sideline for the first time in 26 days as the Towson men’s basketball team resumes its schedule by visiting George Mason.
And then he’ll head back to campus with the team and change into his Santa Skerry outfit.
Well, not literally.
But instead of breaking down film upon arriving home, Skerry will commence preparing the concourse at SECU Arena for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations with the Tigers.
“We’re going to feed them well on both nights,” Skerry said this week. “There’s going to be a way to be able to get them some fun stuff and entertainment and gifts. I went out and bought a tree. Had it in my car, the tree and ornaments.”
It’ll be the second unusual holiday in a month for Skerry and the Tigers — one they hope to eventually view as the end to the start-and-stop portion of their season and the beginning of a 12-week span that will take them to the CAA Tournament in Washington, D.C., in the first weekend of March.
Towson spent Thanksgiving as part of “Bubbleville” at Mohegan Sun, where the Tigers were initially scheduled to play St. Bonaventure at 9 AM on Nov. 25 in the first Division I game of the 2020-21 season. But St. Bonaventure had to pull out of Bubbleville following a Tier 1 positive coronavirus test on Nov. 19, which began a chaotic scramble for Skerry and his staff.
“We’ve actually had game preps for eight different opponents,” Skerry said. “We were going to play St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, and Stephen F. Austin — really good teams. And then that changed and they said, ‘Would you open up with San Francisco and then play Rhode Island and then play SFA?’ I was like, 'Sure.' So we prepared for all that.
“We get up there on a Monday and they hit me, like late afternoon, ‘Would you open with (UMass) Lowell and then play San Francisco and then SFA?’ And I was like, 'Yeah, what the hell.' Pat O’Connell on my staff was doing all the initial scouts; this poor guy’s working his tail off. Then going to practice Tuesday at like 11 AM, they call me at 10:30 (and say), ‘Is there any way you’d consider playing Virginia at 1:30 tomorrow and then play San Francisco and then play Buffalo?’ And so I’m like, 'Yeah, we’ll do it.'"
With starters Nicholas Timberlake, Juwan Gray, and Jason Gibson still recovering from preseason injuries, the Tigers weren’t at full strength for the three games, all of which they lost. Timberlake scored 19 points against Virginia, still the defending national champion, before scoring just 16 total points on 4-of-19 shooting against San Francisco and Buffalo. Gray was held to 10 total points in the trio of losses while Gibson went 6-for-14 from the field against Virginia and San Francisco before being limited to three points and missing all seven of his 3-point attempts against Buffalo.
But Zane Martin, who returned to Towson for his senior year after transferring to New Mexico following the 2017-18 season, looked as good as expected in averaging 19.3 points in the three games and scoring 25 against San Francisco and 27 points against Buffalo. So Skerry was hopeful some more practice time for the recovering players as well as an aggressive post-Bubbleville schedule beginning with a game against Maryland Dec. 1 would allow the Tigers to get into some kind of flow.
Except then a Tier 1 staffer tested positive for the coronavirus, which forced the Maryland game to be canceled (that was the eighth game O’Connell tried prepping). Then a Towson player tested positive, which forced the postponement of a game against Coppin State. The positive test was a false positive, but on Dec. 4, another player tested positive, a result that was confirmed with a PCR test the next day. The Tigers shut down for 14 days and postponed their next three games.
“We had ran 502 tests before we had a positive,” said Skerry, who said the player was asymptomatic.
No DI team that’s started its season has had a longer pause thus far than Towson (at least nine schools that have played since Towson are scheduled to wait at least 27 days before playing their next game).
“This has been as challenging as anything,” Skerry said. “Obviously, we were the worst team in the country at first (Towson went 1-31 in Skerry’s debut season in 2011-12). But with that, I felt like if we just practiced today and we recruited, we could turn the corner. The thing that’s frustrating about this — if you have a lot of injuries, look, that’s always a variable — but initially watching our group, I felt like we maybe had a chance to have the best team we’ve had. I still think we can be really good. But if you get stopped in protocol — there’s no script.”
The Tigers were limited to remote Zoom meetings and exercising outdoors before this week, when they returned to the gym just as a snowstorm was racing towards the mid-Atlantic. The hope is the game against George Mason begins a stretch of at least three games in at least six days for Towson, which is scheduled to host Coppin State on Dec. 26 and visit Siena on Dec. 29. Skerry said he’s looking to play another game before CAA play is scheduled to begin against James Madison on Jan. 2.
Playing right before and after Christmas isn’t the ideal situation for anyone — Skerry’s teams played on Dec. 23 just twice in his first nine seasons — but if the games come off, Towson will enter CAA play having figured out a way to play the type of non-conference schedule Skerry usually likes to play in preparation for the league schedule. Both George Mason and Siena are ranked among the top 150 teams at KenPom.com, which should give Towson five games against top 150 foes, a figure likely to be matched in the CAA only by Northeastern.
“Obviously, initially, we were going home for Christmas, that’s not going to happen now,” Skerry said. “I don’t even know if it’s a good idea to do it at this point. It’s just a tough deal.
“I have great respect for all these kids playing sports over Christmas. It’s the game they love. It’s just a wacky year. But at the end, someone’s going to win this thing — hopefully whomever the best team is.”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.