|Sophomore Jarvis Threatt emerged down the stretch, averaging 19.6 points in the last eight games. (US Presswire)|
NEWARK, Del. -- I'll be completely honest. During my four years at Delaware (class of '09!), I went to maybe two men's basketball games. There was simply no enthusiasm or interest in the program. The Fightin' Blue Hens had some talent here and there, but they just weren't consistently good.
The difference between then and now is almost a complete 180.
People are genuinely excited about the upcoming season. Delaware's version of Midnight Madness packed the arena, and there's plenty of optimism surrounding this year's team.
“It's a lot different,” coach Monte Ross said after Thursday's practice. “But that's what we were striving for when we took over the program. It takes time to build a program, but it also takes time to build excitement for the program. We wanted something sustainable; no quick fixes.”
Last year's 18-win season was the program's best performance since 2000-01, when David Henderson led the Blue Hens to the NIT in his first year replacing Mike Brey. The Blue Hens won nine straight games before losing to Old Dominion in the quarterfinals of the CAA tournament. They also received a bid to the CBI, where they lost to Butler.
After being picked by CBSSports.com to finish second in the CAA behind Drexel this season, the biggest question facing Ross is if he can take the next step. Only twice in the program's history have the Hens won at least 18 games in consecutive seasons ('92-93, '98-01) -- and now Delaware has a target on its back.
“That's one of the unknowns,” Ross said. “You can talk to them about it, but we haven't had the opportunity to go through it. We're going to get a team's A-game. Our seniors are going to have to lead us through it. They haven't been there, but they remember when we were bad.”
The veteran group starts with guard Devon Saddler and big man Jamelle Hagins, the league's best inside-outside combo and two of the three best players in the CAA. Saddler is a big-time scorer who failed to reach double-figures just twice last season, while Hagins averaged a double-double and also blocked three shots a game for good measure.
Delaware has had solid players in the past, but it's not used to have the star power like it has this season.
“They make you look like you know what you're doing,” Ross said. “This is all about the players.”
Expect Saddler's scoring numbers to potentially go down this season, as Hagins looks ready for a more prominent role offensively. He has improved his face-up game and is much more confident than he was last season. Another reason is the emergence of sophomore guard Jarvis Threatt. Over the last eight contests last season, Threatt averaged 19.6 points -- ncluding 31 against Butler in the CBI.
Three-point shooter Kyle Anderson and bruiser Josh Brinkley also return to the lineup. Anderson is lights-out from behind the arc if given time, while Brinkley is effective if given the ball. With so many options, Saddler won't need to put the offense on his back so often.
“That's one of the things we are talking to him about, making the simple play,” Ross said. “He has a higher trust level in his teammates. Instead of forcing the ball, he's making the right play.”
It won't take long to see what Delaware is made of this year. The Hens play at La Salle to open the season, and then potentially face Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off. A win there brings a trip to Madison Square Garden. Road contests against Temple, Duke and Villanova are also on the docket.
“That's one of the things we wanted to do, sort of take a page from the selection committee,” Ross said. “With the players we have coming back, we wanted to put ourselves in the conversation. I think they can handle it.”
With VCU off to the Atlantic 10, George Mason and Old Dominion down a bit, and four teams ineligible to play in the conference tournament, the door is open for Delaware to make a move within the CAA.
The talent is there; the fan support is there. Most importantly, the enthusiasm is there.
“This could be a special team,” Ross said.