The NCAA basketball tournament is one of the best and most popular sporting events on the planet, but it rarely hits home here in Delaware, if for no other reason than our two Division I programs almost never make it to the NCAAs.
Last year, of course, we could track Salesianum School grad Donte DiVincenzo as his highly-ranked Villanova Wildcats marched through the field of 64. Of course, we had no way of knowing at the time that DiVincenzo would end up having one of the best championship game performances in NCAA history and be voted as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, which he used as a springboard to becoming a first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA and, in the process, a very rich young man.
Villanova is back in the tournament after winning another Big East championship and they are the closest team to Delaware that’s in the NCAAs, but nobody expects the Wildcats to win another championship with their young roster. Still, Nova is one rooting interest for Delaware fans who want some team to follow.
Other than that, we can hope for the annual upsets that make this tournament so special, when some unknown school from some two-bit conference knocks off a nationally-ranked team from a glamorous, big-time conference. That happened last year right off the bat, and in shocking fashion, when Maryland-Baltimore County became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed when they defeated Virginia.
Rooting for the underdog is one of the most fun things about this tournament, which is one reason why I never play NCAA pools. The only people who weren’t happy to see UMBC win last year were the people who had Virginia going deep into the tournament, and many poolers had the Cavaliers going to the Final Four. That destroyed their pools and instead of enjoying the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, they moaned and groaned as they tore up their brackets.
Speaking of brackets — once again, the word “Delaware’’ doesn’t appear on anybody’s bracket, as our two Division I schools once again failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
The University of Delaware has appeared in the NCAAs a total of five times, by three different Blue Hens teams. The first two came after coach Steve Steinwedel resurrected the program and led it to consecutive North Atlantic Conference championships in 1991-92 and 1992-93.
Those teams were led by Alex Coles, Mark Murray, Spencer Dunkley, Anthony Wright, Denard Montgomery and Ricky Deadwyler and they brought excitement and big crowds to the new Bob Carpenter Center.
Of course, neither of those appearances lasted very long as the Hens lost in the first round both times, to No. 12 Cincinnati and No. 5 Louisville, respectively, by a combined score of 177-111, but at least they made it.
But then there was a long drought until coach Mike Brey arrived on the scene and, like Steinwedel, brought life to the program, as well as consecutive NCAA berths in 1997-98 and 1998-99 as the Blue Hens dominated the America East Conference. Those teams, led by Mike Pegues, Keith Davis, Tyrone Perry, Kestutis Marciulionis, John Gordon and Darryl Pressley, also failed to win an NCAA game, losing to No. 11 Purdue and No. 20 Tennessee, when they gave the Volunteers a scare before falling 62-52. Like Steinwedel’s teams, they won a lot of games over their Delaware careers and they were fun to watch.
Then Brey left for the Kelly greener pastures of Notre Dame and, for the most part, the Delaware program has foundered. There was one shining moment, however, when the Blue Hens ruled the Colonial Athletic Association, which is a lot harder than winning the light-weight North Atlantic or America East conferences. Coach Monte Ross led the Blue Hens to the CAA championship in 2013-14 which a roster than included Devon Saddler, Davon Usher, Jarvis Threatt, Kyle Anderson and Carl Baptiste. That team also got knocked off quickly, losing to No. 11 Michigan State 93-78 in the first round.
As for Delaware State, the Hornets had one shining moment in 2005, when coach Greg Jackson’s team won the MEAC regular-season and tournament championships and made the only NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
And the Hornets – led by Jahsha Bluntt, Darrin Shine, Aaron Williams and Troy Roundtree — made the most of it, even though they didn’t win. But they played tough against mighty Duke before losing 57-46. And one big reason they hung with the Blue Devils – Delaware State held Duke ace J.J. Redick, now with the 76ers, to a season-low seven points in 1 of 7 shooting.
One of these days, one of those two schools will make it back to the NCAAs and, who knows, maybe one of them will even win a tournament game. Until then, we’ll just have to sit back and enjoy the dramatic games, emotional upsets and great basketball we’ll see over the next couple of weeks.