Football is king at the University of Delaware and always will be. And football has earned that distinction by being a nationally prominent program since Truman was president.
Basketball has always taken a back seat to football and there have been times when it had to ride in the trunk. Basketball had a brief burst of glory and fan appeal in the late 1980s and 1990s when coaches Steve Steinwedel and Mike Brey made the sport relevant in Newark.
That’s when they first opened the Bob Carpenter Center and, for the first time ever, a ticket to a Delaware basketball game became a hot item. The Blue Hens played in the NCAA Tournament under Steinwedel and Brey and fans packed the Bob to watch those teams. It appeared Delaware basketball had arrived.
Then, just as quickly, it left. Basketball faded back into the background at Delaware, mostly because the Hens stopped winning and that was mostly because they moved to the Colonial Athletic Association in 2001. The CAA is much more competitive than America East, their former home, and the Hens didn’t rise to the occasion. Going into this season, Delaware had compiled a 118-186 in the CAA, a winning percentage of .388, and you don’t have to be a math major to know that isn’t good.
And current coach Monte Ross’ record was even worse. He’s entering his sixth year in Newark and in his first five seasons the Hens were 53-103, a winning percentage of .335. Or, to look at it from a different perspective, Ross’ losing percentage was .652.
Anyway, Delaware basketball is once again on the upswing, even if the Blue Hens’ current record (6-7 overall, 2-1 in the CAA) doesn’t indicate that. There is solid and steady progress being made, progress that can be seen on the court even if it hasn’t completely shown up on the scoreboard or standings yet.
The building process really got underway last season when Delaware added some key pieces and went 8-10 in the CAA. That progress was accelerated this past year when Ross had his best recruiting class, and even though the Hens are young, this is the most talent he’s ever had. That doesn’t mean the Hens are ready to dominate the CAA, but at least they appear ready to compete, which is a big step in the right direction.
“We just have more talented guys, to be honest with you,’’ Ross said. “Not to take anything away from our teams in the past, but we’ve been able to upgrade our talent level.”
That includes Delaware’s top two players, junior Jamelle Hagins and sophomore Devon Saddler. They earned high praise from North Carolina-Wilmington’s coach Buzz Peterson this week, who said “Delaware has one of the best inside-outside punches in the league.’’
In case you didn’t know, Hagins is Mr. Inside (averaging 14.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game) and Saddler is Mr. Outside (averaging 19. 7 points per game).
What makes the future even brighter is the freshman class, which includes starters Khalid Lewis and Kyle Anderson and key reserve Jarvis Threatt. And even though the Hens don’t have a winning record, some of their games have been impressive, including a couple of their losses.
For one thing, Delaware has already beaten Drexel, the preseason favorite to win the CAA. And they’ve held their own against four members of the fabled Philadelphia Big Five, even though the Hens lost three of those games. Delaware was competitive against Villanova and Penn, beat La Salle and almost beat Temple, losing 66-63.
That oh-so-close loss to Temple looked even better after the Owls upset No. 5 Duke 78-73 on Wednesday night. Let’s see … Temple beat Delaware by three and Duke by five, so that means Delaware is two points better than Duke, right?
Anyhow, it appears better days are ahead on the court. The next step is to get the fans excited about Delaware basketball again. Right now, basketball takes a back seat not just to football, but also to Delaware’s nationally-ranked women’s basketball team – the men’s team has played six home games and has an average attendance of 2,328 and the women’s team has played four home games going into Thursday night’s contest against Towson and had an average attendance of 3,091.
At least the men’s program isn’t stuck in the trunk anymore.