Not that long ago, if you attended a University of Delaware men’s basketball game you might have thought you wandered into an intramural game, instead.
No fans. No noise. No fun.
That has changed. Delaware has already won 20 games and, like it is for a major-league baseball pitcher, 20 wins is a magic number for a college basketball team.
And here’s an even more significant number for the Blue Hens – 4,722.
That’s how many fans showed up for Delaware’s final home game, a 78-62 loss to Hofstra at the Bob Carpenter Center. The result certainly wasn’t what all of those people were hoping for, but the fact that so many of them showed up – almost a sellout – is proof that the Hens have turned an important corner.
Coach Martin Ingelsby has made a dramatic difference as he finishes his fourth season in Newark, and for the first time in a long time the Blue Hens are worth talking about and, of course, worth watching. Once again, they are relevant.
With two regular-season games left, Delaware is 20-9 overall and 10-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is good for a tie for third place with Towson, behind Hofstra (13-3) and William & Mary (12-5).
The key to Hens’ success has been balance – four of their starting five are averaging in double figures and the fifth, center Dylan Painter, is averaging 9.5 points per game. Delaware has good size and strength with the 6-foot-10 Painter and 6-7 forward Justyn Mutts. And they have perimeter shooters who can also take the ball to the basket in Ryan Allen, Kevin Anderson and Nate Darling.
Delaware is a formidable opponent when all of those pieces are working together, and Ingelsby has done a good job acquiring those pieces and then making them fit.
You can look at his roster and know that he had a plan for recruiting. When he took over for former coach Monte Ross in 2016 the cupboard was pretty much bare and Ingelsby had to start from scratch as he tried to resurrect a program that nobody seemed to care about anymore.
In his first year, Delaware won 13 games, then 14 in his second season and 17 in his third. And now the Hens have won 20 games, with the potential for a few more. Even though Hofstra will be a strong No. 1 seed in the CAA tournament, which begins on March 7, the Blue Hens have a legitimate shot to win the conference championship and just their sixth NCAA Tournament berth in school history and first since 2014.
And Ingelsby has done it despite a one-two punch to the gut that could have knocked the wind out of the program for several years. First, he lost his first recruit and best player, guard Ryan Daly, when Daly decided to transfer to St. Joseph’s, where his family has a long history and also plays in a better conference, the Atlantic 10. We’re sure Daly doesn’t regret his decision, but in his first season at St. Joe’s the Hawks are just 5-21 overall and 1-12 in the conference, even though Daly is averaging more than 20 points per game.
Then another key player left for supposedly bigger and better things – guard Ithiel Horton, who made the CAA’s all-freshman team last year after averaging 13.2 points per game. Horton also wanted a bigger pond to splash around in and he got it, transferring to Pittsburgh of the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference. Horton must sit out this season and he’ll have three years of eligibility at Pitt, which is currently 15-13 overall and 6-11 in the ACC. Whether he ends playing meaningful minutes for Pitt remains to be seen.
Even though it’s a useless exercise, it’s fun to imagine the current Delaware team with Daly and Horton still in the lineup. As it is, the future is bright for the Blue Hens, who don’t have a single senior among their starting five.
Interestingly, Ingelsby recently complained about a potential change in NCAA policy, which would allow athletes to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year. Ingelsby fears that would mean mid-major schools like Delaware would lose players who want to play for a bigger school after proving themselves at a smaller school.
And that’s a real possibility – after all, Daly and Horton transferred for that very reason even though they had to sit out for a year. But, on the other hand, there’s an equal chance, and maybe even a greater chance, that the opposite will happen and a player at a bigger school will get discouraged by a lack of playing time and transfer to a smaller school so he can get out on the court instead of sitting on the bench.
That’s how Delaware landed one of its most valuable players, Painter. He was highly recruited coming out of high school and signed with Villanova, one of the elite programs in the nation. But that also meant that he had to compete with a bunch of other blue-chip players and Painter saw that he wasn’t going to play much. So, he sought a program where he would get a chance to strut his stuff and he chose Delaware.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how much talent a team has if the orchestra leader is off the beat, and Ingelsby has proven three things so far – he knows how to recruit, he knows how to coach and, most importantly, he knows how to win. As long as he does that, the fans will continue to show up at the Bob and nobody will mistake it for an intramural game.