Before his team's NIT Season Tip-off game at Virginia on Tuesday night, Delaware coach Monte Ross didn't bother to downplay what making it to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals would mean to the program.
Ross told his players in the locker room beforehand that a win would earn the Blue Hens unprecedented exposure and the chance to secure the kind of marquee wins on a national stage that can earn national recognition.
"I talk to this team in ways I haven't talked to teams in the past because they're mentally tough, physically tough and mature enough to handle it," Ross said. "We told them the prize if they won that game last night was the chance to showcase themselves at Madison Square Garden, which is something they'll cherish the rest of their lives. I thought they played like a team that wanted to play on that big stage."
A hard-fought 59-53 victory over Virginia validated Delaware as a CAA contender this year and preserved the Blue Hens' hopes of being the first mid-major interloper to win the NIT since Butler in 2006. Delaware (2-1) will face Kansas State in the semifinals next Wednesday with Pittsburgh and Michigan looming on the other side of the bracket.
The jubilation of the Delaware players after Tuesday's win was especially satisfying for Ross to see. They celebrated on the floor and in the locker room after stymying Virginia's precise, methodical motion offense, limiting the Cavs to 35 percent shooting and 4 of 21 from behind the arc.
"You get into coaching to see the reaction our guys had in the locker room last night," Ross said. "They were jumping around elated. It was really good to see. It was neat for me to be able to see that."
There was a time when many thought Ross might never reach the heights at Delaware that the Blue Hens achieved Tuesday.
In Ross' fourth season, he won just seven games, only one more victory than the program tallied his first year at the school.
Delaware administrators easily could have gotten impatient, fired Ross and searched for someone else to help the program gain relevancy in the CAA. Instead they showed unusual patience, recognizing that an injury to the team's starting point guard had led to the down season and that a promising recruiting class was set to arrive the following year.
"The reason I knew we could build a winner here goes back to my administration," Ross said. "A lot of places tell you they're going to give you time to build a program because they know it's in shambles, and then in two years they fire you because it hasn't been built. Delaware said they were going to give me time, and they followed through. And now I think we have something sustainable going forward."
The key to the Blue Hens doubling their win total from seven to 14 in 2011 and going 12-6 in the CAA and making the CBI Tournament last season is the maturation of several key recruits Ross landed.
Guard Devon Saddler, a dynamic 6-foot-2 junior, tallied 20 or more points 15 times last season and leads the Blue Hens in scoring again this year. Guard Jarvis Threatt, a crafty playmaking 6-foot-2 sophomore, has picked up where he left off when he ended last season with eight straight games in double figures. And forward Jamelle Hagins, an athletic 6-foot-9 senior, is the interior complement and a double-double machine.
Delaware returns all five starters from last year's 18-win team, so the Blue Hens boast experience few teams nationally can match. They also have greater interior depth this year than last thanks to the arrival of 6-foot-9 Carl Baptiste, a St. Joseph's transfer who averages 22 minutes per game.
As a result of their experience and their guard play, the Blue Hens were projected second in the CAA between Drexel and George Mason entering the season. Ross also packed the non-league schedule with road games at the likes of Temple, Duke and Villanova in hopes of giving his team ample chance to pick up the signature wins needed for at-large contention in March.
Delaware lost to La Salle in its season opener but its win over Virginia should help prove that scheduling tactic wasn't fueled by false hope. And now the Blue Hens have two more chances to make a name for themselves nationally next week in New York.
Of course, Wednesday will be a step up in competition against Kansas State, which has won its first three games by 33, 24 and 61 points against North Dakota, Lamar and Alabama Huntsville. Ross insists his team is excited for the challenge and by Wednesday won't just be happy to be at Madison Square Garden.
"Jamelle Hagins said it at the press conference last night," Ross said. "We're going up to New York to win. We've done a lot of nice things to build the program, but we needed a win like last night and an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden. Now another nice next step would be to go to the Garden and win a ball game."