RICHMOND, Va. – It’s time to recognize the job that Monte Ross has done at Delaware. That might seem like an odd idea coming off an 88-74 loss to Old Dominion in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament, but as the Blue Hens wait the next week to see if they will get another chance to play this season, stepping back to see how they got here is a worthwhile exercise.
A lot of Ross’ tenure at the school has not been pretty, and there have been fits and starts along the way. His first season must have seemed endless; the Blue Hens went 5-26 with a number of injuries and disciplinary actions that had to be taken, the latter as Ross had to lay down the law. They reached double-digit wins the next two years, then stepped back to just seven wins the following season. That was difficult, and things looked a little iffy at the point.
Last season, the Blue Hens were better, and they advanced to the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament before losing to eventual champion Old Dominion. It was still a 14-17 season, another below .500, so while it was progress, it still wasn’t the kind of season the Blue Hens had become used to in America East and early in their CAA days. With key seniors departing, on paper this season’s team looked like a wild card, as they would have two of the best players in the conference (Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins) but an open question as to how good the support cast would be.
The Blue Hens’ season may be over, but this has been the breakthrough team for Ross. They have their first winning season since 2003-04 and the most wins since three seasons before that. Much of it had to do with the character and chemistry of the team, and it’s one reason why Ross is hopeful that this team will see some kind of postseason play.
“It was really special to coach these guys this year because of their character, their leadership, especially Jamelle (Hagins) and Devon (Saddler),” said Ross, now in his sixth season at the helm. “We faced a lot of adversity in games. These guys never wavered, not for one second.”
What was really interesting, and a testament to what Ross has done and the character of the players currently in the program, is how this team responded after a tough loss. On January 25, the Blue Hens came to Boston and blew a late lead in a loss to Northeastern. While they lost their next game at Drexel, the Blue Hens then ran off nine straight wins before losing on Saturday. They turned a corner from that point and secured the first winning season for the program since 2003-04.
Additionally, the Blue Hens should be even better next year. They will return most of the current players, and the two seniors that are gone are not significant contributors. Saddler and Hagins will anchor the team, while a fine freshman group will come back with a year under their belt. The team also has great chemistry and continued the improvement at the defensive end that had already started. This year’s team held opponents below 40 percent from the field, which is important because they aren’t a team that forces turnovers.
Ross admitted that he isn’t confident but is hopeful the Blue Hens will get a chance to play in a postseason tournament, most likely the CBI or CIT. If they get that opportunity, it will help this team develop for beyond this year with more practice as well, and over the years CAA teams have benefited immensely from playing in those tournaments as they have gone on to greater success later. Thinking about it certainly brought some perspective to where the program is.
“I tell you what, it’s nice for you to be able to ask that,” said Ross with a smile.
Ross would love to keep coaching this team, and Saddler, ever the competitor, wants it for more reasons. There’s his obvious competitive edge, but also the sign of his leadership.
“I think it would mean a lot for the freshmen since they’re down in the locker room and we’re just trying to pick them up,” said the sophomore guard. “We’re going to be one of the better teams in the CAA next year.”
Ross was quick to credit the Delaware administration for their support in all of this. He knew he could easily have been shown the door at some point while he tried to rebuild this program the right way, but they wanted it done with high-quality players and young men. If they did let him go, there would be no shortage of coaches interested, because it’s a very good job. They have a nice arena, a nice campus in a good area, and solid academics. They are near a couple of prime recruiting areas as well, although Ross has effectively expanded their recruiting base further as evidenced with some of the team’s better players now.
There was thought to be some heat on Ross earlier in his tenure because the turnaround wasn’t happening in the win-loss column, but he’s still there. Delaware had a breakthrough season and looks poised to be a team projected in the top four next season in the CAA. Ross has done a good job with this, and because he’s always been a stand-up guy and done it the right way, that job should be recognized and any heat that might have been on him should be off.