Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guru's College Notes: CAA Coaches Make Delaware Confront Its Destiny

Guru's note: There is also a men's/women's story at Philly.com covering both men and women on CAA day for The Inquirer sports department print section.

By Mel Greenberg

The Colonial Athletic Association does not offer Survivor when the conference holds its annual preseason media day for its collegiate men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Nevertheless Delaware veteran women’s basketball coach Tina Martin has certainly found the occasion to be her own reality show thanks to the greatest high school talent to come out of the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

And for Martin, she has had to have a certain constitution to persevere, not that her job has ever come close to being on the line, even when the Blue Hens experienced a recent two-year slump caused by graduation.

Four years ago in the fall of 2008 Martin had to offer a rat-a-tat non-stop string of no comment, not talking, statements at this event to friend and foe alike after Elena Delle Donne, the former national high school player of the year, had put the powerful Connecticut program and, for the moment, the sport she loved in her rearview mirror to return near her home and enroll in the Blue Hens volleyball program.

But over the ensuing winter after never having lifted much of a strong recruiting finger when the 6-foot-5 guard-forward Delle Donne was doing her thing at Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy, Martin found that answering a knock on the office door sometimes works even better than a home visit.

Delle Donne wanted back in the sport and she wanted it at a school in the CAA, a conference that continues to be one of the great quasi-secrets with the often-misused tag of mid-major to compare the competition to the likes of the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences.

And so a year later, Martin was doing a 180-degree turn when this affair was still being held across the Potomac River at the former ESPN Zone in the nation’s capital.

She had Delle Donne in the fold but spent most of the day trying to calm everyone down pointing out the Blue Hens were definitely on the way back, courtesy of other talent being eclipsed by the media focus on Martin’s prized freshman.

Adjustments were going to have to be made all over the place and Delaware was definitely not going to transform overnight into a machine but the road ahead was definitely looking to become an expressway back to the glory days before the slump.

However, soon after a solid debut at St. Francis, Pa., in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, Delle Donne endured a bunch of nagging injuries that caused her go back and forth from domination on the court to sitting on the sidelines in the role of a cheerleader.

The most notorious was when she missed several games after accidentally stepping into a pothole in a parking lot near her dorm following a snowstorm.

There were a slew of excruciating losses in terms of narrow setbacks in the closing minutes against the top teams in the CAA of that season.

However, the rookie season ended with Delaware earning a bid to the NWIT and Delle Donne doing a rarity in the conference by claiming both the player and rookie of the year trophies.

So forward progress meant that last season had much ahead on the horizon. However, after being a scoring machine in the first few games, Delle Donne mysteriously removed herself during the opening minutes of the road stop at La Salle in nearby Philadelphia complaining of fatigue.

Martin had already suffered one loss overlooked because of the attention Delle Donne draws when point guard Kayla Miller couldn’t play because of back problems.

So first having to endure backcourt by committee, Martin had to steer the Blue Hens through much of the season not knowing if or when her star player might return.

Ultimately came the diagnosis of Lyme Disease, and once the treatments began Delle Donne, who averaged a nation’s best 25 points when she did play, willed her way back into the lineup near the end of the season and things began to happen.

Seeded seventh in the CAA tournament, Delaware shocked former perennial power Old Dominion in the quarterfinals, another rarity that perhaps sealed the fate of longtime Lady Monarchs coach Wendy Larry.

Then another upset occurred over UNC Wilmington, whose new coach Cynthia Cooper, the WNBA Hall of Fame legend, had quickly helped the Seahawks shed their doormat image in the conference.

Suddenly Delaware was one win away from a CAA tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But playing a fourth game in four days against defending champion James Madison and senior scoring star Dawn Evans became too much to overcome.

All of that, however, was reduced to past history Tuesday morning with the announcement that for the first time since joining the CAA for the 2000-01 season Delaware was picked by the conference coaches to fulfill the promise.

And this time around Martin had plenty to say, ready to accept the challenge, and represented her colleagues on the women’s side with remarks during the official short program part of the day.

And why not?

Miller is healthy, five starters are back supported from the reserves by six more letterwinners, including former St. Joseph’s standout freshman Sarah Acker, who after a year back on the court following a transfer from the Hawks could fortify the post attack.

But Delle Donne is the biggest reason, having gotten back on track with a stellar performance for the United States gold medalists at the World University Games.

“It’s been an interesting journey to say the least with Elena,” Martin stated the obvious before drawing a stream of media seeking interviews. “Certainly the games she missed in the first two years have not helped us as far as where we want to be.

“But she is healthy now and if we can keep her healthy, there is a great expectation on this team,” Martin continued. “We have a couple of players who are nursing nagging little injuries but that’s part of basketball. That’s the way it’s going to be.

“There’s not a team or season when someone doesn’t have something wrong with them so you play through it, you do the best you can and hopefully you’re successful and you go to postseason and you have great years,” Martin added.

“And this season is no different. We’re excited. I think we have a lot of talent on our team. And now it’s a matter of pulling them all together and letting them play together so we can become the team that, on paper, everybody is looking at and trying to figure out how good is Delaware going to be.

“I really don’t have that answer yet. But we’re working at it. We’re working to be the team that a lot of people think we are.”

Martin did allow herself to look back to the struggles of last season, though Delaware finished 20-14 overall and a fifth-place tie in the CAA with a 10-8 conference record.

Now the question being whispered in the underbelly is whether Delle Donne, whose natural senior season is ahead, will forego her final year of eligibility in 2012-13 to make the same move as former Tennessee All-American Candace Parker did in leaping to the WNBA, which allows that kind of action from undergraduates.

“If they can’t afford it, I’ll gladly pay the travel expenses for anyone in the WNBA who wants to follow Elena this season,” one coach joked about finding away to limiting Delle Donne’s potential over the rest of the conference to a one-year stand.

Delle Donne has already said, like her good friend UConn’s Caroline Doty who has been set back by recurring knee injuries, that she plans to see her time in Newark all the way through.

However, with Baylor sensation Brittney Griner not due to graduate until 2013, there’s speculation that Delle Donne could become the overall No. 1 pick if she comes out after this season.

But the ownership of the top pick is unknown at the moment until the draft lottery. There is the chance that recently-crowned WNBA champion Minnesota, holding ownership of the Washington Mystics’ first-round pick, could land another overall No. 1 choice, which would be ironic considering the Lynx ran away with the regular season and the playoffs winning 7-of-8 games along the way.

Martin can’t worry about the far future. She has continuously said she will support whatever Delle Donne wants to do to bring herself happiness and as of Tuesday for Delaware the only future that has meaning is the one that has become now.

-- Mel


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