When Monte Ross took over the men’s basketball program at the University of Delaware in 2006, he inherited a team that lacked any of the attributes it takes to have team success. Not surprisingly, the Hens were picked to finish last in the CAA before Ross’s first season. It began a trend that has continued throughout his entire tenure in Newark. Preseason expectations have run decidedly low for every single one of Ross’s UD teams.
Until now that is.
The Hens have been picked to finish second in the CAA according to the league’s annual preseason media poll that was released last month. It is a huge sign of respect and a big stride forward for the program — a feat Ross both acknowledges and immediately dismisses as he gets his team ready to begin its season on Saturday at LaSalle.
“We are excited about [expectations being higher] because I think what it means is your program has gotten to a certain point,” Ross said at CAA Media Day in October. “You want to be at a point where you’re in the conversation. We realize that the preseason expectations don’t mean a lot once the games start, but it’s nice to be in that conversation.”
“We haven’t really talked to our team about it a whole lot. One of the things we might have said to them is, when they picked us last in the league I told you don’t believe them, they don’t know what they talking about. Well, they haven’t gotten any smarter, so don’t believe them now that they’re picking you (near the top). We never let outside forces affect how we go about our daily business and we put higher expectations on ourselves than anybody could ever put on us.”
Delaware center Jamelle Hagins understands the message his coach is trying to impart on the team, but the center also acknowledges his teammates’ desire to live up to the expectations they worked so hard to create.
“We were always picked at the bottom of the league and we always finished above that,” Hagins told BlueHens.com. “So now that we’re picked near the top of the league I think the only option is to finish first.”
Hagins is the centerpiece of an experienced group of high-energy Hens. Ross believes that experience should pay huge dividends to help Delaware play more consistently this season.
“Our players understand there are lulls in games and there are lulls in seasons,” Ross said. “We have the experience to get ourselves out of those lulls, and I think that’s very very important. They understand that if we keep putting our head down, going about our business and doing it the correct way, that we’ll have a chance to be successful.”
Delaware is likely to be successful if it gets big seasons from Hagins, Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt. All three players were recognized by the conference, with Hagins and Saddler earning preseason CAA First-Team honors and Threatt receiving Honorable Mention recognition.
Ross is expecting big seasons from all three men, particularly his senior big man, who worked hard in the offseason after averaging a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds per game a year ago.
“He put his time in this summer like no one else, and if that’s any indication, he’ll have another jump,” Ross said about Hagins. “He’s made a jump every single year in terms of his points averaged and rebounds. I expect him to make another jump this year because of the work he’s put in during the summer.”
The center will be complimented by a backcourt that will feature more minutes with Saddler and Threatt on the floor at the same time. According to Ross, getting the two guards more time together in practice has been a big priority.
“Complimenting each other is the first thing,” Ross said. “What we’re doing this year is putting them together a whole lot. We never really went starters and next group playing against each other (in the past), but this year we are doing that, putting the starters together a lot, so they can get a feel for where each other like the ball.”
Once that synergy takes wing, Ross is confident Saddler and Threatt’s skill sets will complement each other perfectly.
“Devon brings a passion, an energy, a flair for the game that is really unmatched,” Ross said. “He really is into every single practice and he tries to win every single drill. His competitiveness is off the charts.”
“Jarvis brings an ability and a talent level that I don’t even know that he knows he has a lot of times. The big key with him is that consistency. We’re trying to get him to dominate every single day in practice so that he has the ability to dominate in games. When he gets to that level, it will be pretty special.”
And that’s really the big x-factor in Delaware’s season. Can Threatt build on the immense promise he showed as a freshman? If so, the Hens will be a contender at the conference tournament in Richmond when the CAA convenes to figure out who will earn its automatic berth to the NCAA tournament in March.
Ross has brought his program a long way in seven years.