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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guru's Musing: Another Delaware Game-Changing Moment Awaits At Maryland

(Guru’s note: A separate story for the print part of the Inquirer sports section is on Philly.com with Guru coverage of the Drexel-South Carolina game and Dawn Staley’s homecoming so the Guru is going a different direction here with a column on the anticipation of Delaware’s showdown Thursday night with host Maryland in the Terrapins’ tournament title game.

Because of non-basketball business early Thursday afternoon that precludes the Guru getting out of town fast enough to make the drive down to Maryland, he will be tweeting from the St. Joseph’s-Boston College game but will be tracking the action to the immediate south. )


By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA –
Since the season got under way back in early November the Delaware women’s basketball team has been akin to someone heading off the beach to do a little body surfing in uncharted waters.

Several times out the Blue Hens have looked at a wave unlike most they had ever seen and after successfully navigating across the crest an even bigger one would lie ahead.

With junior Elena Delle Donne healthy and happy, Delaware (10-0) is getting a rush from playing in an environment and setting challenges that not too long ago existed in another galaxy from where the Blue Hens dwell.

The schedule is the toughest it’s ever been in meeting nonconference foes away from the Colonial Athletic Association.

The night the Blue Hens upset then-No. 11 Penn State at home in the Bob Carpenter Center, the triumph brought them hours later to a morning wake up where dreams and fantasies had become reality.

Several weeks later the gates of approval lifted for the first time and Delaware had become a nationally ranked squad in both the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls determined by media and coaches voting panels.

But as they churned along leaping over Ivy power Princeton, turning back an improved Villanova team, winning at Atlantic 10 contender St. Bonaventure besides attracting new admirers, the Blue Hens knew the end of December offered the biggest test they would face before going after the CAA title they are favored to win.

And on Thursday night No. 5 Maryland (12-0) awaits in the title game of the Terrapins’ tournament at the Comcast Center in College Park.

There was little doubt the host team would be waiting for No. 19 Delaware as Maryland proved Wednesday afternoon winning its first round game – an 84-36 thumping of Lafayette.

The Terrapins have been on the other side of the mountain for quite a while since Brenda Frese left a single season of success at Minnesota to sign on as their coach soon after the Women’s Final Four in the spring of 2002.

Frese knows about game-changing moments for a developing program though her situation in College Park was to bring one back to national prominence.

The day Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper of suburban Philadelphia signed their letter of intents on the dotted line, Frese could envision what the future might bring and it arrived two years later in April 2006 when the Terrapins rallied to beat Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in overtime in Boston to win a first-ever NCAA title.

That concept might not be an exact match for Tina Martin’s expectations the day Delle Donne told the veteran coach she desired to return to basketball after a season hiatus spent playing Blue Hens volleyball.

But Martin knew down inside the potential existed for a place her program had never been, even though she suppressed those feelings in favor of thinking first of Delle Donne’s welfare and her comfort as a collegian at Delaware.

And besides, it would not be enough alone to hope Delle Donne could fulfill the promise she held as the national high school player of the year in 2008 out of Ursuline Academy in nearby Wilmington.

Besides, before Delaware could take the floor for this caliber competition that is the Maryland game Thursday night there were some necessary details to attend to the way pilots in the cockpit go through a list rolling down the runway.

Foremost, a supporting cast of quality teammates was needed to complement Delle Donne, who found a personal new dimension last summer when she helped lead the USA squad of prime collegiate talent to the World University Games gold medal in China.

Check.

Beef up the schedule to raise the RPI in case, which also would help if the CAA title and ensuing NCAA automatic bid weren’t claimed.

Check.

And get some wins along the way to make a national impression and land in the national rankings.

Check. Check.

And deepen the roster to protect leads and possess a killer instinct.

Martin addressed that issue Wednesday afternoon after Delaware rolled to a 60-40 win over East Carolina in the opening round at College Park.

Though Delaware soared to a 25-point halftime lead and Delle Donne, the nation’s leading scorer, cleared the 20-point individual game plateau for the 14th straight time, there’s still a concern for the deeper reserves to do their part.

“The second half I was frustrated because we should be more efficient offensively, especially when we start going 10, 11 deep on our bench,” Martin said.

“I feel like we should be able to hold on to those 25-30 point leads,” Martin added.

“Good programs do that. Players coming off the bench need to play with the same intensity as the starting rotation of eight to nine.”

And then Martin looked to the big Kahunas who will be sitting on the other bench.

“We came here to accomplish one thing, and that was to get to the championship game. We have a chance to play one of the best teams in the country in Maryland and that’s where we are, so we’re very happy about that. It should be a good game tomorrow.”

And so, in many ways, Delaware’s matchup with Maryland Thursday night is similar to that winter day in 1995 when a team looking for the next level and wearing the uniforms as the University of Connecticut, ranked No. 2, took on the visiting top-ranked team named Tennessee – the one with decades of tradition and NCAA titles.

Just two things are different, to be fair.

That was No. 1 vs. No. 2.

This is No. 5 vs. No. 19.

And the ambience on press row will be different in that it won’t be crammed with media members from across the nation.

In part that’s because there are less of them at the mainstream offices because of the decline of the newspaper industry.

And in part because expense accounts are not what they used to be and those on their own have to hold back to invest in travel to Denver in April for the Women’s Final Four.

But with technology much advanced since 1995, once the opening tip goes up at 7 p.m. EST, look for a spike in internet traffic checking on the game’s progress besides Delle Donne’s performance. Twiter traffic could also be expected to be quite heavy with tweets from and about the game.

The Guru can tell you that in the last four seasons the blog posts in the top 20 in terms of drawing traffic to this site are loaded with events involving Delle Donne.

Looking to Thursday night, Delaware will lose what’s not gained, but nothing more, if Maryland prevails
.
And at the moment a Terrapins triumph would be the betting expectation in Las Vegas if there were a line on the game.

A lopsided loss by the Blue Hens brings a reality check and the knowledge of what to do better to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Between now and then the CAA games will fulfill enough because of the quest for the conference title. Furthermore, for those not knowledgeable of schools in the conference such as Drexel, Hofstra, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth and several others, they may be considered mid-major but they are anything but chopped liver.

If the loss, if it occurs, is narrow, there will be a sting and feeling of heartbreak but that will quickly be replaced with the knowledge Delaware can play among the best of Division I– BCS schools or not.

But if Delaware wins, the world will quickly become a different place for the Blue Hens, whose previous acclaim this season will pale in comparison.

This doesn’t mean Delaware becomes an immediate threat to win an NCAA title, though all kinds of things could occur to make that concept a reality.

A month before last season’s bracket rolled out, whoever believed Texas A&M – not UConn, Stanford, Baylor or Tennessee – would become national champions?

Lauren Boots, the new women’s contact at Delaware who is doing an admirable job at her alma mater, is 40 minutes away from having her cell phone go into a ringing frenzy with little letup to occur.

Just ask Barb Kowal, the media contact at UConn in 1995, what happened to her nice peaceful existence within hours or less after the Huskies beat the Lady Vols that day and then hit No. 1 for the first time.

Thus Thursday morning arrives with the question of whether the Blue Hens are ready for real prime and hours later Thursday night they will try to provide an answer in the affirmative.

-- Mel

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