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.
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?
“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.