Don't look now, but the University of Delaware men's basketball team is really good. How could that be you might ask. Isn't this the same Blue Hens squad that started the season 0-2 with losses to Richmond and at home to Charleston Southern?
Yes and no.
Delaware has looked like a completely different club since its loss in the home opener. The Hens have won five of their last six games, scoring at least 80 points in each contest. The only loss over that stretch came to a Villanova team that just went down to the Bahamas and routed USC, shocked Kansas and beat Iowa in a span of 60 hours. The Hens hung with Nova in their building for 40 minutes two weeks ago, finally falling 84-80 to a squad that is currently ranked 14th in the country.
That’s a loss that was impressive at the time but is now starting to look incredible.
On Tuesday UD avenged its upset at the hands of CSU, by going on the road for a rare non-conference rematch and earning an 85-80 triumph. Kyle Anderson made an eye-popping eight threes for Monte Ross’ team, which can score with any foe in the country.
Perhaps what makes this recent run of success so remarkable is the fact that it came after UD suspended its senior captain and leading scorer Devon Saddler. With the rest of the world leaving them for dead, players like Anderson, Davon Usher, Carl Baptiste and most importantly Jarvis Threatt have more than filled the void created by Sadler’s absence.
Anderson has taken over several games with his jumper, most notably road wins over Hampton and Charleston Southern. Usher has provided floor balance and an ability to score from the perimeter or off the dribble. Baptiste continues to knock down his high-post jump shot with consistency and hits the offensive glass hard.
The most important change has been in Threatt’s game however. He is playing like a point guard who can score rather than a scorer who just happens to be stuck running the point. The difference is evident in the way he shares the ball, particularly when he breaks a defense down off the bounce. His decision-making has been solid and his shot selection has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was a season ago. When you add all of that to the immense repertoire of athletic skills the junior has always owned, it adds up to a pretty special player. That’s what Threatt is playing like at the moment, and it’s working for Ross and the Hens.
UD will get a couple of opportunities to stand toe-to-toe with major conference foes in the next two weeks, with a game at Notre Dame on Saturday and a trip to Ohio State looming on December 18. If UD can be competitive in those games then CAA play is really going to be intriguing.
The conference is down this year.
Towson is good, but not quite as great as people thought the Tigers would be coming into the season. Drexel strung together an incredible November, with narrow losses to UCLA and Arizona and wins over Rutgers and Alabama, BUT the Dragons also just lost Damion Lee for the remainder of the season due to the injury suffered during the triple-OT triumph against the Tide. Colllege of Charleston has faced a challenging schedule, but has at best been inconsistent so far. Those are really the only teams that have a chance to make a run at the CAA crown.
So far Delaware stacks up pretty favorably with all of them. There’s a long way to go and a lot of hurdles ahead, but the Hens have earned some respect. Now they have a chance to earn more than that over the next four months.
If Auburn’s breathtaking win over Alabama on Saturday taught us anything (and let’s be honest that 30-24 thriller provided plenty more than just one lesson) it is that in college football the right coach can make all the difference in the world. Auburn went winless in the SEC last season, but then fired its coach and brought in Gus Malzahn, an offensive genius, to rebuild its program. Most experts felt it would take Malzahn three-to-five years to get the Tigers back amongst the upper echelon of the best conference in the country.
Turns out it took him less than 12 months.
We have seen this type of thing happen repeatedly in major college football over the years. No one thought Duke could ever be competitive in a BCS conference, let alone compete for a championship, until David Cutcliffe arrived and made it happen this year. Texas was mediocre for more than a decade until Mack Brown took over the Longhorns program 14 years ago and turned them into an annual title contender. Remember when Notre Dame and Alabama were considered programs whose best days were not only behind them, but collecting dust because they had come so long ago? Then the Irish found Brian Kelly, who got them into the national championship game last season where they lost to ‘Bama, who had returned to greatness since hiring Nick Saban six years earlier.
Coaches make all the difference in this sport. A program with no history can become relevant with the right man in charge, and a school with a football pedigree can become dominant with that same caliber coach.
That’s what makes Pat Haden’s decision on Monday to hire Steve Sarkisian as USC’s new head coach so puzzling. Sarkisian comes from inside the Pac-12, arriving in Los Angeles via Washington, where he spent the last five seasons rebuilding the Huskies.
When Sarkisian arrived in the upper northwest he inherited a program that went winless during Tyrone Willingham’s final campaign. Sarkisian quickly turned Washington around, getting them back to respectability in year one, and into a bowl game within two campaigns.
Yet he and the Huskies were never able to make much progress after that. Washington posted three consecutive 7-6 records from 2010-2012 and then went 8-4 this season. That’s a pretty mediocre resume to get the USC gig.
Now proponents of the hire will argue that Sarkisian knows the Trojan program, having served as USC’s offensive coordinator for seven seasons under Pete Carrol. The only problem with that is, so did his predecessor. Lane Kiffin was co-offensive coordinator at USC with Sarkisian, and his tenure went so disastrously that Haden fired him at an airport terminal in the middle of the night as the team busses with all of his luggage still on board pulled away.
Suddenly Haden wants to point to that same kind of experience as making someone prepared for the job?
Obviously Boise State head coach Chris Petersen was Haden’s first choice. When Petersen turned him down the Trojans were forced to move on to Plan B. Still, is a guy with a career record of 31-27 is the best a premiere program like USC can do?
Haden better hope so, because if this does not work it won’t just be his coach that gets “taken to the airport” when his tenure ends.
Another day another victory for Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Birds won for the sixth time in their last eight games to improve to 7-5 and keep pace with the Dallas Cowboys on top of the NFC East standings. Foles threw three more touchdowns and has tossed 19 scoring passes and no interceptions on the season. Amazingly, that’s only one shy of Peyton Manning's all-time NFL record, which the consensus favorite for 2013 MVP set this season.
On the surface the performance seemed flawless, and there was certainly a lot to like about the way Foles played. He was phenomenal in the opening half, making great decisions and accurate throw after accurate throw on the way to a 17-7 Philly lead at intermission. That hot start carried over to the first drive of the second half, as Foles led the Eagles to another touchdown that put Chip Kelly's team on top by three scores.
That advantage proved to be enough to get the Eagles a win, but in much more dramatic fashion than it should have been down the stretch. Arizona scored two straight touchdowns and made everyone inside Lincoln Financial Field hold their breath in the closing moments.
As Yogi Berra is fond of saying, it was déjà vu all over again for the Eagles. Philadelphia followed the same script in its previous game against the Redskins, letting a 24-0 lead shrink to 24-16 with Washington driving deep into Philly territory in the last two minutes.
The Eagles struggle to put teams away in the fourth quarter. Last week it was overly conservative play-calling from Kelly, while on Sunday it was poorly timed penalties on special teams and offense.
The two most costly miscues came in a span of moments, when the Birds had a punt return for a touchdown called back on an illegal block in the back and then a long run by LeSean McCoy (that would've given Philly a great chance to put the game away) was wiped out by a holding penalty.
To Kelly's credit, he learned from his previous mistakes and adjusted by getting less conservative while trying to hold onto a lead. Yet the Eagles still found themselves in a precarious position near the end of the game. Part of the blame for that also has to fall on Foles’ shoulders. The second-year signal caller has been wildly inaccurate during the last two second halves.
As his former head coach Andy Reid used to put it, he’s got to clean that up.
Fortunately it has not cost them yet, but if it continues it will. There's no debating that. And with the Cowboys facing an easier schedule than what lies in front of Philly in the campaign's closing month, a blown lead likely would prove fatal to the Eagles' postseason push.
The Birds have accomplished more than anyone dreamt they could coming into the year. The defense looks like it can hold its own even against good offenses, while Kelly's attack appears to have found its franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Now they just need to learn the intangibles of winning meaningful games late in a season. It is something the franchise hasn't experienced in three years, and a process all young teams have to go through at some point.
If the Birds can figure it out on the fly the division is theirs for the taking.