The Hornets of Delaware State University have surprised the MEAC the exact same way.
The Hornets have won five straight games, their longest winning streak since they won nine straight in the 2006-2007 season. They finished 21-17 that year, went to the finals of the MEAC tournament and were selected to play in the NIT, where they lost to West Virginia.
That was when the Delaware State program looked like it was ready to take off. Coach Greg Jackson led the Hornets to the MEAC title in 2004-2005 and they gave Duke a good game in the NCAA Tournament (losing by just 11, 57-46). They were also voted as the national champions of historically black colleges and universities to cap off the best season in school history.
The good times continued the next two years when the Hornets went to the NIT. They even won a game, beating Northern Arizona in 2006 before losing to Louisville.
That was quite a run – three post-season tournaments in as many years. But then the Hornets fell to 8-24 in 2008-09 and last year they finished 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the MEAC and it looked as if the impressive run was over. And they got off to a rough start this year as they played their annual murder’s row early in the season, which included games at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Georgia, George Washington and North Carolina State, as well as their next-county neighbors, the Blue Hens of Delaware.
Delaware State lost all of those games and then dropped its first three conference games and, with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores, it appeared to would be another long season in Dover.
Then came that five-game winning streak and now the Hornets are 6-3 in the MEAC and in fifth place – that might not sound like much, but it’s a lot better than eighth place, which is where they were just a few weeks ago. And not only have they been winning games, they’ve been winning them against the MEAC’s elite teams. On Saturday, they whipped first-place Norfolk State 67-50 and Delaware State didn’t even have leading scorer Tahj Tate, who missed the game with a sprained ankle, or starting center Kendall Gray, out with a sore knee.
Tate returned for Monday night’s game against Hampton, which won the MEAC title last season. He came off the bench to score 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and was one of five Hornets in double figures in the 77-68 victory.
That balance is a key element of this Hornets team. They have several players who can bury a three-point shot, including Tate, forward Casey Walker and Tyshawn Bell and point guard Jay Threatt, a senior who gives the young Hornets stability and direction.
“We come at you from a lot of different directions and that can be tough to defend,’’ said Walker, who also scored 16 points against Hampton. “And the more we play together, the more confidence we have in each other. It’s just going to get better and better.”
Another thing about this team – none of those guys is the least bit shy about taking those three-pointers and that confidence is surprising considering how young Delaware State is. Four freshmen played against Hampton, including Tate, who is averaging more than 15 points per game and will be an all-conference selection before his career in Dover is over.
Gray is also a freshman and several sophomores are key contributors. So, the Hornets should be in good shape for the next few years, something which has not escaped the notice of Hampton coach Buck Joyner.
“Delaware State is young and athletic and, of course, well-coached and they’re going to be contenders in this league for a long time,’’ Joyner said. “They’re tough to defend because they have so much athleticism and balance. They have a nice team that will continue to grow and develop in the next couple of years.”
Of course, growing means having growing pains and the Hornets will have their share of them as their young players gain experience and even more confidence. But the talent is there and it’s easier to get older than it is to get better.