NEWARK, Del. -- As soon as the entire bracket was revealed for the 2014 NCAA tournament, Delaware head basketball coach Monte Ross stepped up to the stage at the Carpenter Sports Building in front of a full house of Blue Hen fans.
Ross was asked what he thought about his squad drawing Michigan State in its first game and, for a moment, spoke with the kind of trepidation you might expect for a coach that suddenly learned he has to prepare for a team that had just won the Big Ten tournament championship earlier that day.
“They defend you from the time you get off the bus,” Ross said of the mighty Spartans, one of the country’s premier basketball programs.
But then he paused for a moment, turned to the crowd, and confidently declared: “But we score from the time we get off the bus.”
Everyone went nuts, the trepidation in the air completely washed away by that special March feeling when the smallest schools believe they can upset the biggest ones.
The Blue Hens, seeded 13th in the East region, will get their chance to bust up some brackets Thursday in Spokane, Wash., when they meet the fourth-seeded Spartans at 4:40 p.m.
And they’re ready for it.
“We’re trying to win just like all these big-conference teams,” senior Devon Saddler said. “We’re not scared of nobody. We’re not backing down.”
If the Blue Hens are to pull off the upset, they’ll need to lean on Saddler, who will cap an exceptional college career with a well-deserved NCAA tournament berth. The high-scoring guard is averaging 20.2 points per game this season and already owns the school record for career points with 2,201 and counting.
But Saddler certainly has a lot of help in the backcourt with Davon Usher (19.4 ppg) and Jarvis Threatt (17.9 ppg, 5.7 apg) also pouring in tons of points, while St. Joe’s transfer Carl Baptiste (8.3 rpg, 1.3 bbg) clogs the middle on a team that ranks 22nd nationally in scoring.
With those four players leading the way, the Blue Hens (25-9) won the regular-season crown in the Colonial Athletic Association before capturing the CAA tournament title with a last-minute comeback against William & Mary in the championship game Monday.
That title-game victory clinched Delaware’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1999 and allowed the Blue Hens to host what should have been a fun Selection Show watch party Sunday.
But it wasn’t always fun for Ross, as he had to wait until the final region was revealed before seeing Delaware’s name on the big screen.
“Gosh, that was nerve-wracking,” the Delaware coach said. “That was the most nervous that I’d been in an awful long time. And I knew we were in! I can’t imagine being on the bubble and having to sit through that.”
Other people inside the Carpenter Sports Building seemed to be having a little bit more fun than Ross.
In what had the feel of a pep rally, the Delaware players and coaches were introduced shortly before 6 p.m. with Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” blasting over the loudspeakers. Once Greg Gumbel started talking, a hush came over the crowd with a lot of people readying their phones to take videos and pictures whenever there was potential for Delaware’s name to be called. There was an audible sigh of relief when Delaware avoided another strong 4-seed in defending national champion Louisville. And there were plenty of boos when, toward the end of the show, Seth Davis predicted a deep Michigan State run.
In general, most people in the building seemed to be genuinely excited about the draw, while also perhaps somewhat surprised that Michigan State -- coached by the legendary Tom Izzo -- fell to a No. 4 seed.
“I told the guys there are no bad teams in the tournament, so we were going to get a very good team,” Ross said. “I didn’t think we’d get the winner of the Big Ten tournament championship. With Tom Izzo, you’re getting a Hall of Fame coach and a team that’s battle-tested in the NCAA tournament. But that’s the beauty of March -- that you’re able to play games like this.
“We were going to have to play a good team. So why not Michigan State?”
Why not Michigan State? And why not Delaware as one of this year’s Cinderellas?
“I’m thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of something so special,” Usher said. “Now we’re just gonna try to shock the world.”