NIT Season Tip-Off

Delaware’s trip to MSG: Great experiences, missed opportunities

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NEW YORK, N.Y. – It wouldn’t be fair to say that Delaware caught a break that this happened to be the season they took part in the Preseason NIT.

They won the games that they had to win to get to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the country’s only true preseason tournament. They beat Penn. They went into Charlottesville and knocked off Virginia. They made it to the bright lights of MSG and a primetime showcase on ESPN on their own.

But I do think it is fair to say this: it didn’t hurt matters that the year the Blue Hens took part in the event just so happened to be the season that Monte’ Ross has his most talented roster in seven years in Newark, and that they just so happened to get put in a regional with a Virginia team that is now officially in the post-Mike Scott era.

If they happened to have gotten placed in Pitt’s regional, they may not have made it this far. If they had happened to have been invited to the event next season, than they would have been playing without star center — and potential NBA Draft pick? — Jamelle Hagins. This group had “Team of Destiny” written all over it. And when a Devon Saddler three cut a Kansas State lead that had grown to eight back to one, at 39-38, with 13:40 left in the game, everyone on press row had the same reaction: the Blue Hens might actually do this!

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as 32 points from Saddler weren’t enough for Delaware to complete the upset win over the Wildcats, losing 66-63 and missing out on a chance to take a swing at No. 4 Michigan on Friday.

The reason for the loss had nothing to do with intimidation, however. The Blue Hens didn’t make their way into the third place game because they were overwhelmed by the platform they were playing on or because they shied away from the challenge of playing a potential tournament team from the Big XII.

What cost them in this game was … spasming muscles?

With 15 minutes left in the game, one possession before that Saddler three cut Kansas State’s lead to 39-38, Hagins, who had 12 points and 15 boards before getting hurt, went down in serious pain, holding his legs. I could read his lips from press row. He said, simply, “Cramps. In both.” He’d return for a couple of possessions later in the contest, but Hagins was never the same. That was a massive loss; he has a chance to be an NBA Draft pick. Those don’t make their way down to Delaware too often.

“Who knows how this game would have turned out if Jamelle hadn’t come out,” Ross said. “They started pounding us inside when he came out.”

And those weren’t the only cramping issues that Delaware had to deal with. Jarvis Threatt, a sophomore and Delaware’s starting point guard, left the game with five minutes left as he was dealing with cramping issues. It’s kind of hard to pull off an upset when two of a team’s three best players are glued to the bench, getting their legs rubbed down by trainers with bags of ice.

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The beauty of Delaware’s trip to the Garden was that it was actually allowed to happen.

Far too often, the satellite rounds of the early season tournaments are nothing more than exhibitions and a guarantee made to the high-profile participants that they’ll get four games for signing up. Just ask Georgia. They lost to Youngstown State — “lost” is being kind; they were blown out at home by the Penguins — in the ‘opening round’ of the Legends Classic.

But who did you see lose to No. 1 Indiana on Monday night at the Barclays Center? And who did No. 11 UCLA beat on Tuesday? It certainly wasn’t Youngstown State. I know. I was there.

And that’s what makes the Preseason NIT so special.

“It would have been anticlimactic to beat Virginia and not get a chance to go to the Garden,” Ross said. “This is an earn your way tournament. It’s not predetermined. That’s what makes this tournament so special. For us, it was such a big deal to earn our way here and have an opportunity to play Kansas State.”

“I just hope it never changes, because it’s fantastic for a school like Delaware to have the opportunity we had. Like you said, it’s dwindling.”

The irony here is that people like me will paint this as a great story about the team from the little league winning the right to play with the big boys on the big stage. Use a couple of big words, toss in a few of alliterations and throw in some prose, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a great story about those darling Blue Hens from the CAA.

Except the scribes are the only one that saw this group as a ‘David’.

“I knew coming into the game that we could play with them,” said Saddler, whose disgust for being asked about the implications of simply playing well on a big stage was as palpable as it was refreshing in its honesty. “It wasn’t no pride thing. We’re not into moral victories.”

I feel you, Devon. I do. And I don’t want to disagree with you, but I’m going to.

Saying that Delaware played badly in the first half would be a compliment. Saddler didn’t get it going until midway through the second half. His back court mates Jarvis Threatt and Terrell Rogers played as poorly as I’ve ever seen them play in the first 20 minutes. Kyle Anderson wasn’t hitting anything, and Delaware’s big men were getting abused on the offensive glass. The only guy that played well in the first half for Delaware was Hagins, and most of what he did was block and/or change enough shots that Kansas State couldn’t put together a big run. And despite that, the Blue Hens were only down two at the break.

In the second half, things didn’t get much better, as Hagins went down early, Threatt and Rogers continued their subpar play and Anderson still wasn’t hitting anything.

And despite all of that, Delaware went into the break down by two points and ended up losing by only three points to a team that is missing one player (and their head coach) from last year’s group that earned a No. 8 seed.

What happens when this team puts together 40 minutes of quality basketball?

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“There’s no such thing as great people in this world. There’s people, just like you and I, that take advantage of a great opportunity. We have a great opportunity right in front of us. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Those are the last words that Ross spoke to his team in the locker room before he sent them out to the Madison Square Garden floor. And while the Blue Hens fought and scrapped and threw every last punch they had against Kansas State, it wasn’t enough. The Wildcats were simply more physical and hit more key jump shots.

This wasn’t a wasted opportunity as much as it was a missed opportunity. Delaware could have won this game had they played better.

That will sting.

But that sting won’t last long.

Because the Blue Hens will have another great opportunity to take advantage of at 2:30 pm ET on Friday.

Their Madison Square Garden experience isn’t over yet.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

POSTERIZED: Kentucky’s Derek Willis drops a hammer on Florida

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It’s worth noting here that Derek Willis is not left-handed, yet he dunks this with his left hand.

UNC clinches share of ACC title in one of the top coaching jobs of Williams’ career

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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No. 8 North Carolina knocked off Pitt on the road on Saturday afternoon, picking up an 85-67 win that clinched at least a share of the ACC regular season title for the Tar Heels this season.

It’s the second straight season and the eighth time in the 14 years that Roy Williams has been the head coach of the Tar Heels that they can make such a claim. For comparison’s sake, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke have won just three ACC regular season titles in those 14 years and they haven’t won one since 2010.

So this is a pretty good run that Roy Williams is on, and that’s before you consider the two national titles — plus a third national title game — that he’s won during that stretch.

And this year may be as impressive as any job that he’s done during his career.

This UNC team is different than past UNC teams in the sense that it’s the first time that one of his great teams doesn’t have a front line anchored by a future first round pick that is a killer on the block and a stallion running the floor in transition. There’s no Brice Johnson or Tyler Zeller or Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May. Joel Berry II is a really good college guard, but he’s not Kendall Marshall or Ray Felton or Ty Lawson, and his inconsistency is one of UNC’s bigger question marks heading into the tournament. Justin Jackson has turned into a killer this season, which is not something we would have said about Justin Jackson in any other year.

Put another way, this team is not a team that you can look at and know will be a title contender.

But they are.

They hold a two-game lead over an ACC that might get 10 teams into the NCAA tournament with two games left. If they win at Virginia next week, they will be playing for pride and for seeding when they take on Duke in the season finale.

I’d go as far as to say that the Tar Heels are as good, or better, than anyone in college basketball this season. They’ll probably end up as the No. 1 seed in the south and could very well make another run to the Final Four this season.

Considering just how good Williams has been throughout his career, and particularly during his tenure in Chapel Hill, you can understand what it means to say that this may very well be the best coaching job of his career.

Grayson Allen out for Duke against Miami

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Florida Gators in the first half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Duke will be without star junior guard Grayson Allen on Saturday.

According to a report from Greg Gumbel of CBS Sports, Allen will miss the Blue Devils’ road game at Miami with an ankle injury.

The 6-foot-5 Allen is averaging 15.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game this season as he’s battled a few different injuries as well as getting suspended for another tripping incident. Duke is used to playing without Allen and the Blue Devils should still have enough to stay in this one against Miami but it is going to be a tough game to win on the road.

Duke is coming off of a road loss to Syracuse earlier this week as the No. 10 Blue Devils are trying to finish out a tough regular-season schedule these next three games.

VIDEO: Parents fly from Denmark to surprise Drake’s Jacob Enevold on Senior Day

DES MOINES, IA - DECEMBER 19: Center Jacob Enevold #11 of the Drake Bulldogs grabs a rebound in the first half away from forward Dom Uhl #25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes on December 19, 2015 during the Hy-Vee Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
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Drake senior center Jacob Enevold received a special surprise on Saturday afternoon as his parents flew all the way from Denmark to surprise him for Senior Day.

The 7-foot-1 Enevold appeared perfectly content to take part in the Senior Day celebrations when his parents appeared on the floor and he ran to greet them.

De’Aaron Fox out for Kentucky against Florida

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 21:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 21, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Starting freshman guard De’Aaron Fox will be out for Kentucky on Saturday as the Wildcats host Florida in an important SEC showdown.

The 6-foot-3 Fox has a knee contusion, and without him, the Wildcats will start senior Mychael Mulder. Fox is averaging 15.5 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game as he’s been one of the country’s best two-way freshmen this season.

Kentucky and Florida both enter Saturday’s game at 13-2 in SEC play but the Gators took the first matchup by 22 points between these two teams in Gainesville on Feb. 4.