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January 18, 2013

Benimon Has Emerged As CAA's Top Player

HARRISONBURG - Ripped, 6-foot-8 and 252 pounds with practically no body fat, Jerrelle Benimon would be a standout Colonial Athletic Association power forward on pure physical gifts alone. But the Towson junior augments his on-court ability with his off-court habit of watching tons of game film.

"I've always thought it's good to watch what you've done right and what you've done wrong," Benimon said.

Asked what he's doing right this year, Benimon quickly responded "defensive positioning." Asked what he's doing wrong… The Warrenton native paused a few seconds.

It's tough for anyone to pick out flaws in Benimon's game. In his first season after transferring from Georgetown and sitting out one year, Benimon has grabbed firm control of the top spot in the CAA Player of the Year race, and has once-woeful Towson at 9-9 heading into today's game against visiting James Madison.

Coach Pat Skerry said at CAA Media Day last October that Benimon "can be as good as anybody," and the second-year coach wasn't just blowing smoke. His fast-blooming star is averaging 17.2 points (fifth in the CAA), 11.7 rebounds (first), 2.3 blocks per game (third) and 2.4 assists (14th). He also leads the league in minutes played (36.4 per game), and leads the nation with 12 double-doubles.

"We saw it every day [last year in practice], and he's working incredibly hard," Skerry said. "I still think he's just scratched the surface. He can continue to develop confidence in his perimeter game, and his ball-handling, and he's becoming a better leader. He's got a lot of tools in the toolbox. He's talented in a lot of ways. He's a force physically, and he's very gifted offensively. He shoots 3s, he gets fouled, he drives, he passes, he plays on both shoulders, so he's a tough matchup, you know?"

Most are figuring that out quickly. He'll be JMU's problem Saturday at noon when the Dukes try to improve on their own 9-9 record following a loss Tuesday at George Mason.

"I think he might be the best basketball player in the league, regardless of any positions," JMU coach Matt Brady said of Benimon, whom the Dukes recruited and were a front-runner to add when he was looking for a new school in the spring of 2011. "He's as strong as any player in the league, good passer, skillful. …We're going to have to pay a lot of attention to him."

Benimon said his parents own a house roughly 20 minutes away from JMU's campus (he did not know in what town), and that he strongly considered joining the Dukes after visiting the campus two springs ago. He said his parents urged him to go somewhere further from home, so that he could avoid distractions.

He chose Towson after scoring just 84 points in two seasons as a reserve at Georgetown. It seems like an odd choice, given the Tigers' history of failure, but Benimon believed in the players that Skerry was bringing into the program, including fellow Big East transfer Mike Burwell, previously of South Florida.

Benimon's trust now seems warranted.

A laughable 1-31 last year with Benimon and Burwell watching in street clothes from the sideline, the Tigers - who also added Providence graduate student Bilal Dixon, junior college transfer Rafriel Guthrie and talented freshman Jerome Hairston - are far more competitive this season.

"I don't think a lot of people knew we were going to be this good," Benimon said. "The players knew we'd be good. The players think we're [actually] underachieving a bit."

Of the Tigers' six leading scorers, only junior Marcus Damas - another transfer - was active on last year's squad, which began the season with 22 straight losses, extending its losing streak to an NCAA record 41 games.

According to athletic director Mike Waddell, a 9-4 finish to this season will mark the biggest year-to-year turnaround in NCAA history - breaking the 17-game flips by Mercer in 2003 and UTEP in 2004.

A more attainable 7-6 finish would give the Tigers a winning record for the first time since 1995-96 - they're lone season in the North Atlantic Conference, between stays in the Big South and America East.

Despite its 4-1 record within the CAA, Towson cannot compete for a league title or any postseason appearance because of a one-year ban relating to its Academic Progress Rate (as Waddell noted, no current members of the program were responsible for the low score).

"We can't do anything about that," Skerry said. "We don't talk about that. We're just trying to get better every day. If you start talking about winning X amount of games, or a championship - I think it's the everyday stuff that puts you in position to do those type of things. We've got guys who have no idea who we play after James Madison."

Led by power forward Rayshawn Goins, who has paced the team in scoring the last seven games, JMU is sitting in the top-half of the conference with a 3-2 league record. Because the Dukes' offense is so reliant on Goins (14.9 points per game), the 6-6 senior might not draw the assignment to defend Benimon. That could go to Taylor Bessick and Enoch Hood - a pair of players who are weaker but longer than Goins.

Brady said the Dukes will throw a variety of looks at Benimon. Meanwhile, Benimon said he expects to guard Goins, whom he remembers from the preseason two years ago when JMU scrimmaged Georgetown. Benimon said Goins dominated the Hoyas' frontcourt that day.

While Goins has been steady all season, some of his teammates have been inconsistent away from the Convocation Center. The Dukes have struggled in true road games this year, going 1-6 so far. The lone victory was against Old Dominion, the only team still winless in CAA play.

Ironically, Towson has been better on the road than at home, where it is just 1-3. Towson's average home attendance is a puny 1,368, which ranks it ahead of only Georgia State within the CAA. The Tigers are opening a 5,200-seat arena next season.

Under Brady, the Dukes are 6-2 against the Tigers - their best mark against any CAA opponent - and have won the last four meetings.

Of course, this matchup differs from the past, because the Tigers, with a star like Benimon, now have teeth.

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