BALTIMORE – Trust. It’s something we all wrestle with in a variety of situations in life, both personally and professionally. It is not easily earned, but is very easily lost. When it isn’t rewarded by those who earn it, the tendency is to trust less easily later on. There are many notable quotes about it.
For Delaware, trust is a big key to why they are CAA champions, and not just in the way it’s normally talked about in basketball. The trust from one player to another is there, certainly, and was shown in the game-winning play in Monday night’s win that sent them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time as members of the CAA. But there’s also the kind of trust you don’t often come across – the trust a coach has in their team.
Many coaches demand a lot of their players, and not just in terms of results. They have playbooks to know, schemes to understand, and call plays at different times during a game. They run the show essentially without much player input or autonomy, unless they have a special team. For a while, that’s how Delaware head coach Monte Ross ran his program. This time around, though, he saw that he didn’t have to do that quite so much.
“I listen to them, because I have so much trust in the group,” said Ross.
This wasn’t something the eighth-year head coach could do early on in his tenure. He simply didn’t have the talent, the experience, the collective basketball I.Q. on the roster to do that. For that matter, he said he couldn’t even do this last year to the same degree. It all came together this year, and his trust in them isn’t just about his coaching style, understated though it is. It’s about this team.
The core of this Blue Hen team has had the most success the program has had in a while. It has been anything but a smooth ride, however. They have been through adversity, from some tough losses early in the seniors’ career to losing a tough one in the conference semifinals last year on a debatable call, all the way to multiple suspensions this season. But it was through all of it that this team didn’t get fractured, but rather, grew their trust in each other, and by extension, gave Ross all the more reason to trust them.
It started at the top. Devon Saddler is the program’s all-time leading scorer, but all he ever wants to do is win. That’s why he basically recruited Davon Usher to the school when a postseason ban led Usher to transfer from Mississippi Valley State. That’s why, when Ross was ready to put together a play for him with the Blue Hens down one in the last minute on Monday night, Saddler said they should ride big man Carl Baptiste, who had 24 points.
“The first thing he said was ‘Get the ball inside to (Baptiste),'” Ross said. “It was crowded in there when we got it to him, but he powered and bulled his way to the basket and got us the victory. I can’t say enough about these guys, about Devon making that suggestion with the championship on the line.”
“Carl had it going all game,” said Saddler. “I knew once he got it in the post, they couldn’t stop him down low.”
Ross said he knows that coaches can’t always see everything that’s happening on the court. They’re not out there like the players are, so they listen to what the players see. Beyond that, though, Ross has at times let them dictate strategy. The players have taken that and given suggestions in the huddle, and when they have gone ahead with it, there are clear consequences. In the end they all have to live with it.
“They have ownership in what goes on out there and with our program,” said Ross. “I trust these guys. It’s worked out a little bit.”
Part of this is also not wanting to over-coach. It’s quite clear that this team has a lot of scoring power, and you don’t need to look at the numbers to know that. As it is, Ross hasn’t often employed a big playbook over the years, so trusting his players to make plays wasn’t a stretch. With this personnel, the feeling was that it wouldn’t take much to over-coach and slow down what this team can do. He knows that comes with inherent risks, but great potential rewards. For that matter, no coaching style is risk-free. That was the one that made the most sense and had the risks the staff was most willing to live with.
In this scenario, the risks are potentially bigger than just a game or the season. Ross is now working for his third athletic director, and eight years is a long time these days for a coach to get to turn a program around to the point of an NCAA Tournament appearance. Fortunately, each has shown enough trust in him to make this happen, even if it took longer than many are willing to wait nowadays.
Through the suspensions and other personnel adversity, Delaware kept winning. The “next man up” mentality was ever-present on this team, and their trust in each other never wavered. The players got the message the staff was preaching, and from that, the staff trusted them come game time. On Monday night, that trust was rewarded in the biggest way.