Unexpected Journey

by March 13, 2013

by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer

The Towson Tigers were viewed as a bottom feeder in the Colonial Athletic Association in October. They were coming off a dreadful 1-31 season and were ranked 10th out of the 11 teams in the pre-season CAA Coaches and Media poll. The season seemed even bleaker for the Tigers, as they were ruled ineligible for the conference tournament due to a horrific Academic Progress Rate that fell below NCAA standards.

Yet, even with the aforementioned muck hanging above the Tigers’ heads, head coach Pat Skerry and junior forward Jerrelle Benimon knew that their second year in Maryland would be much more successful than the first.

Before both arrived at Towson last season, Skerry and Benimon were members of the Big East. Skerry served on Jamie Dixon’s coaching staff at Pittsburgh while Benimon was stapled to John Thompson III’s bench at Georgetown.

When Skerry made the move 255 miles south, the fiery young coach made sure to bring another Big East guy along with him.

“I had scouted him when I was in the Big East,” Skerry, who’s undeniably thick Boston accent consistently sings Benimon’s praises. “I knew he was a big, physical rebounder, but then when we got him, we didn’t realize at first how skilled he was offensively.”

Neither did anyone else.

Benimon, a 6-8, 245-pound forward from Warrenton, VA, did not even appear on the CAA’s Pre-season Honorable Mention team on that infamous media day back in October. But you can’t necessarily blame the media. After all, Benimon registered just 70 field-goal attempts in just 680 minutes in his two seasons as a Hoya, and the big man sat out all of the ‘11-12 season per NCAA transfer policy.

But when the season began and Benimon finally received legitimate action on the court—he averaged 36.0 minutes per game at Towson this year—the CAA and national media starting paying very close attention.

In his Towson debut, Benimon erupted for 23 points in a 75-58 loss to future CAA rival, College of Charleston. Then, following several double-doubles, he hung 30 and 18 against Temple in a December 12, 72-61 road loss. The junior truly burst into the national spotlight when his 20 points and 21 rebounds helped lead Towson to an improbable road victory over Oregon State that also ended a four-game losing streak.

Those numbers alone speak for the dominant abilities Benimon possesses, but doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his legendary run through his first slate of CAA conference games.

Overall, Benimon averaged a ridiculous 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game this season, on 53.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.8 percent shooting from beyond the three-point arc as well. The forward, who can pound the ball inside with an array of post moves and stretch the defense with his jumper, captivated the CAA and became the clear-cut favorite for conference Player of the Year.

Yet, nobody expected it. Not even Benimon.

“When I first left Georgetown, I didn’t exactly know I was going to be Player of the Year,” said Benimon, after he collected the award at the CAA Post-season Awards banquet in Richmond on Friday evening. “I did have high expectations though and I guess I’ve reached the highest as of right now.”

Benimon became the face of an NCAA-record program turnaround, as he led the Tigers to a 17-win differential from their previous nightmare season. But, for a player who’s received as much individual recognition as one can—he’s currently in the Top 10 in voting for the 2013 Lou Henson (Best Mid-Major Player) Award—Benimon’s coach praises the talent’s blossoming leadership skills as well.

“He’s really, really improved as a leader,” Skerry said. “He takes winning very seriously. He’s naturally a quiet kid, but he’s become more and more of a vocal guy and I think we’ll see that develop more in the offseason too.”

Benimon’s leadership will certainly be a key factor in Towson’s success next year, as he will be the focal point of a strong senior class under Skerry.

“Hopefully we can get to the NCAA Tournament and win the conference championship,” Benimon said of his expectations for Towson, who has been ruled academically eligible for the 2014 CAA Tourney, next season.

Inevitably, Benimon and his coach have started to think beyond next season, however, as the sensational conference Player of the Year has already drawn plenty of interest from agents and scouts.

“We’ve had quite a few scouts at games that are very excited about him,” Skerry proudly said. “Which is no surprise, because they should be very excited about him.”

But, does Benimon have what it takes, as a mid-major player not consistently competing against the top talent in college basketball, to draw the attention of NBA clubs?

Both Benimon and his coach believe so. But, the duo also agree that No. 20 has some things to improve on as well.

“My dream has been to play professional basketball in the NBA all my life,” Benimon said, with an enormous smile across his face. “I think I need to improve my shot and extend it out to NBA three-point range to really reach that next level.”

The physically imposing Benimon also feels his ball handling is exceptional for a player his size—it is—and he excelled when bringing the ball up the court for Towson this season. When watching the Tigers, many have said Skerry’s club looks most dangerous offensively when Benimon skies for a defensive rebound and proceeds to immediately spearhead a fast break. Skerry recognizes how effective that can make his offense and how Benimon playing with the ball in his hands will help improve his Draft stock.

“He absolutely has the tools to be deadly on the wing,” Skerry assessed. “We’ve got to continue to make adjustments to get him the ball in certain areas of the floor to avoid double teams if we see zones and those types of things. He’s also a tremendous passer.”

But a zone defense is nothing compared to the other challenges Benimon has overcome. He’s risen from the ashes of a no-promise bench situation to CAA Player of the Year. He’s outgrown the introvert persona that he carried with him in high school to mature into an outspoken leader. With all of those accomplishments already under his belt, making the leap to the NBA might just be simply the next step in an already successful journey.