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Battled-tested Delaware is on top of the CAA for good reason

January 19, 2014 Columns No Comments

BOSTON – Monte Ross has his most complete team at Delaware, and it’s showing up in CAA play more than any other time this season. The Blue Hens have turned a corner the last few years, and as they leave Boston with a 74-70 win at Northeastern and a 4-0 mark early CAA play, they leave looking like as good a contender as anyone.

It’s easy to start by looking at personnel, and the Blue Hens are good there. They have a veteran perimeter unit with a post-graduate, a senior and two juniors leading the way, and they’re anchored up front by a senior who’s been through plenty. But that’s only the beginning.

Delaware is a very battled-tested group, though not quite in the same way as last year. They played another tough non-conference schedule, and while last year’s team also had injuries at times, they had their best players for most of it. This time around, they had to go seven games without Devon Saddler, who is poised to become the school’s all-time leading scorer sometime in February. He’s also the team captain for the third straight year, so the team didn’t just have to go without his production.

In November, Saddler was suspended for a month. No one will say if it was academic in nature, but as the suspension lasted until just past the end of the fall semester, it’s possible that was the case. Saddler also couldn’t practice with the team, so that meant upon his return the team would have gone a month without him, Jarvis Threatt and Davon Usher playing with and playing off each other. Delaware went 5-2 without Saddler, remarkable by itself considering they won four of those games on the road. Saturday, they were without Threatt, who they suspended for the game and did not travel with the team.

“We’ve got a lot of experience down the line in our entire starting lineup,” said senior center Carl Baptiste. “When one person drops, someone has always been stepping up. I think we’re pretty blessed with that, but at the same time, we’ve got guys that want to step up and win games.”

Simply put, this team has the “next man up” mentality seemingly down to a science, and it’s one reason to believe in this team as a contender.

“We have a team that doesn’t flinch when things aren’t peachy keen,” said Ross. “They just go on to the next thing, whatever is necessary to get the next win.”

Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is that since Saddler returned there hasn’t been an issue in terms of team chemistry or offensive flow. It’s been a seamless re-integration of him into the lineup, even as they brought him off the bench for the first eight games after he returned.

The question with his return wasn’t so much concerns over who would get minutes or shots; it was how they would play together after going a month without him as teams get used to playing a certain way over time. Part of this transition owes to the play of Threatt, who leads the CAA in assists and has a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio while also increasing his scoring output from last year. But Saturday showed that he’s not the only reason for it. Saddler scored a game-high 22 points on 8-13 shooting, but he added eight assists with two turnovers.

“I had to get people more involved, and I wanted to bring the team together,” said Saddler. “Losing Jarvis is big, and we needed somebody to get more assists. I felt like this game, it wasn’t my turn to score, it was other people’s turn to step up. I had to get assists and try to get rebounds for my team.”

Ross said Saddler wants the ball in his hands more, and not for scoring. Much like Threatt, he sees the scoring talent around him and knows others can help this team win.

Saturday also showed that the Blue Hens’ frontcourt, the big question mark before the season, is good enough for them to win. While Jamelle Hagins and Josh Brinkley aren’t walking through that door, Carl Baptiste has proven more than serviceable and Marvin King-Davis has done Brinkley-like work complementing him. They have seen a lot of reason to believe in the likes of Devonne Pinkard, Barnett Harris and Maurice Jeffers, but thus far none of those three has played well enough to leapfrog the holdovers. Baptiste got them going early en route to a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Pinkard hit a big three-pointer to put them ahead to stay with less than three minutes left on Saturday.

“I stepped forward and said, ‘Give me the ball,'” said Baptiste, who then referred to one of his counterparts, Northeastern’s Scott Eatherton. “Their big man is averaging a double-double in the league, they’re saying he’s one of the best big men in the league, so I just really wanted to show my position in the league and where we stand as a team.”

Right now Delaware’s place in the CAA is at the top. This team has talent, experience, has played tough teams and has had to play without key players and found ways to win without them. Ross said they’re always ready for close games, and the core of this team has been in more than their share of them in their careers. The Blue Hens haven’t just cruised to victory thus far, so when games get tight, a lot of players can make a big play and this team knows how to play through the adversity that will come.

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