If you are beginning to get the feeling that the whole world is picking Michigan State, not just to beat Delaware in the teams’ opening round affair today at 4:40 p.m. (94.7 WDSD), but to win the entire tournament, you’re not alone. Michigan State was predicted to raise the championship trophy by all six of ESPN’s analysts during the Worldwide Leader In Sports’ selection show on Sunday. As of Wednesday night, the Spartans were also the public’s top choice to be champs according to the experts in Vegas.
If Michigan State is so good, is it even worth the trip west for Monte Ross’ Blue Hens? Well, Delaware point guard Jarvis Threatt answered that question best at UD’s press conference on Wednesday.
“You never know what can happen,” Threatt explained. “That's why every year [there’s] always an upset and things don't go the way people plan them to go. You never know. We just have to be on our good game that night and see what happens.”
Ross echoed those sentiments with a dose of reality thrown in for good measure.
“If we had to play Michigan State in a seven-game series, it’d be very, very difficult for us to win,” Ross admitted. “But in a one game situation…I think that's the beauty of March Madness.”
So how do the Hens create that one-game situation? We’ve heard all the reasons why Delaware has no chance today, but here is what has to happen in order for the Hens to pull off the greatest upset in school history.
At the top of the list is the need to play with confidence. UD can’t buy into Michigan State’s hype. The Hens must respect the Spartans (which they do) but not view them as invincible (which they most certainly do not).
“It's never an ‘oh God’ situation with us, because we prepare ourselves to play anyone,” said senior guard Davon Usher. “And we knew coming into the field of 64 that we were going to face a good team. Everyone in this tournament is good. Michigan State of course, is the Big Ten champions. We don't really worry about the name on the other team's jersey, we just play against them. Those guys lace up their sneakers just like we do.”
Senior forward Carl Baptiste said it is not in his team’s DNA to enter any game timid.
“We're not scared of anybody,” Baptiste said. “We're ready to play. We have had a lot of success this season and we're looking at this as just another challenge and we're excited to get on the floor with them.”
Part of the reason why this stage isn’t too big for the Hens is that they faced some pretty daunting competition during non-conference play and held their own. Delaware lost close games at Villanova and at Ohio State in December. Ross’ team already proved they can compete in hostile territory against the same caliber of team as the Spartans, so a neutral floor could prove the difference in getting UD over the hump.
“I would say our non-conference schedule has prepared us for games like this,” Threatt said. “Really, we don't have to be the better team all year, we just have to be able to bring it for one game. And it's on a neutral floor and we're confident. It's the NCAA tournament, anything can happen, so we're a confident group. We're experienced, and we don't really back down from whoever it is that we're playing.”
That moxie will have to manifest itself most significantly on the offensive side. Make no mistake about it, Delaware must win this game by lighting up the scoreboard. When he learned who UD’s first-round foe would be on Sunday, Monte Ross joked that the Spartans get off the bus playing defense, but countered that his team comes off the bus scoring. He needs that anecdote to ring true tonight.
Delaware averages 80 points per game. The Hens probably won’t reach that number against a Tom Izzo-coached defense, but they have to at least get the game into the 70’s. Usher, Threatt and Devon Saddler all have to hit at least a couple of open jump shots early to spread out the Michigan State defense and create some room to operate off the dribble.
Still, Delaware’s offensive balance gives the Hens their best chance at an upset.
“We have a pretty dynamic team also, so as far as matching up, I have trust in any one of my guys to go up against any one of their players,” Threatt said. “It's not a matchup that stands out to me that we're going to say, ‘hey, we're going to pick on this guy’ or anything. I have faith in any one of my guys to go get a basket or get a stop on any play.”
The final piece to the puzzle for UD to pull off the upset is to hold its own on the glass. Much of the responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of Baptiste, but the big man and his teammates know the senior cannot do it alone.
“We're going to need all five on the glass,” Baptiste said. “That's definitely going to be my main focus [against Michigan State]. I'm going to find Adreian Payne every play and make sure I stop him from getting to the glass, because him and [Branden} Dawson are monsters when it comes to that. But it’s got to be all of us.”
All season UD’s guards have done a phenomenal job of crashing the glass. Saddler, Usher and Threatt are averaging a combined 16 boards per game. They need to hit that number and probably surpass it for Delaware to reach the next round.
“They're well known for crashing the glass and when you think about Michigan State, you think about shoulder pads and helmets and all that stuff when Coach Izzo gets pissed at them,” Ross said. “So, that's going to be a task for us. That's going to be one of the things that we have to do as a team, because they are so hungry getting to the glass.”
One additional thing that might aide the Hens cause is to play relaxed. Sometimes when you want something too much it can hurt your chances of accomplishing it. Ross told anybody who would listen all week that his team doesn’t fare too well when it plays tight, so he has tried to keep the Hens’ mood as light as possible, even resorting to sarcasm in an attempt to keep everybody loose.
“Well, the biggest matchup that we're going to try to capitalize on, and I told my guys this, is Coach Izzo's lack of tournament experience,” Ross said with his tongue firmly planted in cheek about the Michigan State head coach, who has taken his team to six Final Fours and 16 NCAA Tournaments in 19 years on the Spartan sideline. “I don't think he's really been in a lot of pressure cooker situations, so we're going to try to lean on that. At least that's what I told my team. And then, the other thing is, in their Big Ten championship game they had to play against Michigan, which is obviously a rival and a very tough opponent, but in our championship game we had to play against William and Mary, so we had to play against two guys. So, we're very prepared for this situation that's coming up.”
A little humor never hurt anyone. After all, wasn’t David relaxed when he nonchalantly took a stone out of his pouch, slung it and slayed Goliath in the most famous upset in the history of the world?
Will the Hens be able to duplicate the feat? That remains to be seen. But despite what seemingly every pundit in the world will tell you, Delaware absolutely can win this game today. And if they do, Ross knows one rich guy who will probably be awful happy about it.
"I just told the guys, I said, 'shoot, if we are able to go and play the way I expect us to play. I'll probably get a call from Warren Buffet,'" Ross said. "He'll be the happiest person in the world because we'll break up everybody's bracket, so there will be no billion-dollar payout."