Entering the 2013-14 campaign people knew the University of Delaware men’s basketball program had talent, but no one knew how well all the pieces would fit together.  UD spent the entire regular season showing anyone who would pay attention just how perfectly things had fallen into place by winning 14 conference games in 16 tries and claiming the regular season CAA crown.  Now the Hens have earned the opportunity to show the entire nation exactly how well everything has gelled.


Delaware is just one win away from reaching its first NCAA Tournament since 1999, thanks to the Hens’ 87-74 semifinal-victory over Northeastern on Sunday.  All that stands between UD and the big dance is William & Mary, whom Monte Ross’ team will face in tonight’s CAA Championship Game at 7 p.m. at the Baltimore Arena.  It is Delaware’s first ever trip to the CAA title tilt, while the Tribe are vying for the conference crown for the third time in the last seven years.


UD reached this point with a blistering second-half performance on the offensive end against the Huskies.  Delaware connected on an eye-popping 76 percent of its shots from the field on its way to 50 points after intermission.  The result was a two-point nip-and-tuck battle transfomred into a laugher in almost the blink of an eye.  That kind of blitzkrieg is nothing new for these Hens, who have lit up stat sheets all season long.


“Wow I didn’t realize that,” UD head coach Monte Ross said when told about his team’s second-half shooting numbers.  “But, you know what, one of the things about this team is there’s some explosiveness.  These guys can really score the basketball and a lot of times you want to make sure you don’t get in their way.  You want to make sure that they are able to play to their talent, so sometimes you do more managing than coaching.”


Ross acknowledged that this style of basketball leaves itself vulnerable to some less than pretty stretches of play, but that the risk far outweighs the reward considering the talent he has in place.


“It leads to sometimes where I cringe or our fans cringe at some of the shots that we take,” Ross conceded.  “But we have to live with that because there’s the opportunity to do what we did here in the second half.”


That attitude perfectly sums up the maturation of Ross as a coach over his eight-year tenure in Newark.  Early in his career Ross probably would not have felt comfortable giving any team—no matter how talented they may be—this much freedom on the offensive end.  Now, he not only does it, but has made it one of the focal points of his program.


“You can’t suppress guys who can score.  There are going to be times when they take a difficult shot or a shot you would have rather they not have taken.  But to try to pull the reigns in on their aggressiveness would be counterproductive, especially for this team because they have a high basketball IQ.  They understand.  Before I can yell at them or say anything a lot of times they look at the bench and say, ’That was me.  I shouldn’t have taken that shot.’  So I want these guys to be aggressive and to know I have confidence in them.”


Perhaps one play in the second half best sums up why these Hens have earned the freedom they enjoy from their head coach.  Davon Usher had dribbled to the foul line and had a wide open jumper.  It would have been a good look for a guy who scored 42 points in a game earlier this season, but at the last instance, Usher saw a better opportunity, so he passed up his shot and dished the ball to fellow senior Devon Sadller, who buried the ensuing trey.


“Usher was open and could have shot that ball, but he realized [Saddler] is hot, let me make this extra pass to him,” Ross said.  “And it just becomes contagious. When you really are sharing the basketball it  becomes a contagious act.  These guys are phenomenal with it.  They’re so selfless and play for one another.  It’s just really good to be a part of it.”


William & Mary head coach Tony Shaver certainly knows how lethal the Hens’ attack can be.  His Tribe let a 13-point first-half lead slip away in a 76-71 Delaware triumph at the Carpenter Center on January 15.  Shaver then watched UD jump out to a 24-point edge in less than 17 minutes during the January 29rematch in Williamsburg.  The Hens held a double-digit edge for every second of the contest’s final 35 minutes en route to an 89-74 triumph that was played without UD starters Jarvis Threatt and Marvin King-Davis.


“Delaware is one of the best offensive teams I’ve seen in this league since I’ve been here,” Shaver said.  “They’ve got so many explosive players.  I would normally sit here and tell you it’s going to [depend] on the defensive side of the ball, but I’m actually going to tell you off the top of my head that we’re going to have to score the ball.  We have to make shots.  And just like every other game this weekend, we have to rebound the ball.  We’re not the biggest, strongest most powerful team, so we have to rebound the ball.”


Shaver’s team did exactly that in its semifinal-upset of second-seeded Towson.  In a virtual road game that was played just a short-drive from Towson’s campus, William & Mary played the more physically imposing Tigers to a draw on the boards in the second half.


“It was the difference in the ball game.  We talked about  at halftime that [rebounding] was the one thing really holding us back.  They had nine offensive rebounds in the first half…and only three in the second half, so we really manned up and did a great job on the glass in the second half.  We’ve talked a lot to this team about mental and physical toughness, and we really displayed it [on Sunday].  We just couldn’t be much tougher than we were.”


The Tribe will need all that toughness and then some against a UD team that has displayed a seemingly endless supply of intestinal fortitude all year long.  The Hens saw 60 percent of their starting lineup miss a month of the season due to suspension and barely missed a beat.  On Sunday they lost Carl Baptiste, their best big man, due to foul trouble, yet still found a way to out-score Northeastern, 46-36 in the paint.


If William & Mary wants to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, they are going to have to come up with a better plan than to be tougher than Delaware.  No one has had any success taking that route against the Hens all year.  Ross’ team has made its way to within 40 minutes of the big dance with hard work and talent.  Now they are poised to celebrate on the national stage for the first time in 15 years.