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While there’s no denying that the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are the best 48-hour period of the entire year for sports junkies, the most compelling part of March Madness are the mid-major conference tournaments in which only the champion advances to the NCAA Tournament.

Coaches, players and programs can rewrite the narrative of a season and reshape their multi-year legacies in just two, three or four games. But those 80, 120 or 160 minutes can also overshadow the body of work compiled over the previous several months and years.

Only the champions get to fully enjoy the 30,000-foot view of their program — even if it’s a far different view than the one observed, say, eight days earlier.

“I’ll tell you a quick story,” Delaware head coach Martin Inglesby said after the Blue Hens completed an equal parts surprising and expected run to the Colonial Athletic Association championship by beating UNC Wilmington 59-55 in Tuesday night’s title game. “(Last) Monday night, after the Towson game, we played at 6, it was over at 7 and we were a pretty beaten down team, we had lost (three) games in a row. Came back up 95 and I texted my wife Colleen. I said ‘Hey, we’ll be back around 9:30, let’s get a bottle of wine and drink our sorrows away.’

“And she texted me right back and said ‘Nope. You’re gonna come home and you’re gonna figure this (stuff) out.’ And I needed to hear that.”

The 69-57 loss to Towson capped a season-ending three-game stretch that included either two, 2 1/2 or three losses, depending on where on the calendar one wants to place the Tigers loss, which was the completion of a game that began Jan. 27 but was suspended due to slippery floor conditions with Delaware ahead by nine points and 18:42 left in the second half.

However long it was, the losing streak placed Delaware on the verge of a disappointing end to an era that began with the underclassmen-laden Blue Hens making back-to-back trips to the conference tournament semifinals in 2019 and 2020.


Delaware played just 14 regular season games — none in February — and fell in the tournament quarterfinals in 2021, but with fifth-year seniors Ryan Allen, Kevin Anderson and Dylan Painter all taking the extra year of eligibility provided to those who played during the pandemic season, the Blue Hens were the preseason favorites before finishing in fifth place for the fourth straight year and earning a quarterfinal matchup with defending champion Drexel.

The metrics at KenPom.com gave Delaware less than a 50 percent chance of winning its quarterfinal game — each of the six previous CAA champions won at least one tournament game the following season — and just a 7.1 percent chance of winning the championship. But fueled by the no-nonsense pep talk from his wife, Inglesby presided over a series of intense practices — including two-a-days on Mar. 2, when the team at 7 AM — and implored the Blue Hens to play with a renewed toughness and defensive intensity.

Delaware ended up holding opponents to fewer than 60 points in all three games while disposing of a trio of higher seeds — Drexel plus regular season champion Towson and UNC Wilmington, which tied the Tigers with a 15-3 record but lost the tiebreaker for seeding purposes — in becoming only the second CAA champion to win three games over higher-seeded foes as well as the first fifth seed to win it all.

“It’s amazing in sport what one win can do for the confidence of a team,” Inglesby said. “Getting that one Sunday, these guys were ready to roll and they were ready to compete. They were ready to lay it on the line for each other. And we had a chip on our shoulders. We were not happy with how we finished the season. But boy, does this make this experience even more enjoyable for us, to be able to finish it and cut down nets and be champs.”

For the three teams Delaware defeated on the way to the title, the progress in the long-term development of their programs was at least initially overshadowed by the disappointment of the conference tournament loss.

UNC Wilmington, a traditional league power which finished in last place during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, came within a couple baskets of going worst to first. But the Seahawks, the CAA’s second-most efficient offensive team in league play per KenPom.com, shot just 37 percent Tuesday and missed their last six shots over the final 2:30.

“I told the guys in the locker room — I know it hurts, I’m beat up as well,” UNC Wilmington head coach Takayo Siddle said. “They’re responsible for getting this program back to winning championships. We had a heckuva season, a historic season. We just didn’t cap it off like we wanted.”

For Drexel, the 66-56 loss to Delaware on Sunday was somewhat tempered by the appreciation of what the Dragons did last year, when they were the only CAA team to avoid a Covid-19 pause, became the first sixth seed to ever win the conference tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.

“We did something pretty special in Cam’s junior year,” said Drexel head coach Zach Spiker as he sat next to star guard Camryn Wynter. “And then to follow it up with a winning season — albeit we wanted way more than a winning season. But to do some things that haven’t happened in 10 years — back-to-back winning records, it’s only happened one other time in 17 seasons.

“This result stinks, because you want more, you want to keep playing, we’re just competitors. I told the guys in the locker room, I was (at) a little bit of a loss because I hadn’t planned on (losing). Just trying to win a practice, trying to win a game, get ready for this or that.”

Towson was an overwhelming favorite to end an even longer NCAA Tournament drought — the Tigers have played in three leagues since winning the final automatic bid for the long-defunct East Coast Conference in 1991 — after becoming the first team since George Mason in 2011 to lead the CAA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

But a pair of starters — Cam Holden, a first-team all-CAA selection, and Charles Thompson, a member of the all-CAA defensive team — were each injured in a quarterfinal win over Northeastern and played at far less than 100 percent in the 69-56 loss to Delaware in Monday’s semifinal.

It was the latest bit of random tournament misfortune to go against Towson under head coach Pat Skerry, who arrived in 2011 to take over a program that hadn’t posted a winning season since 1995-96 and has won at least 19 games five times but has yet to reach the CAA final.

Skerry, who’d be the best quote in any league in America, spent his press conference Monday alternately lamenting the nearest close call — “it’s not a series, it’s a tournament, anything can happen” — and trying to provide that 30,000-foot view as the Tigers prepared to play in the NIT. (All regular season conference champions who don’t reach the NCAA Tournament get an automatic bid to the NIT)

“It’s great for the program and our university — we won our first (regular season) CAA championship and going to our first NIT in the history of the program,” Skerry said. “We’ll definitely take pride in that. I think the last time we won the championship was in some league called the East Coast Conference. I couldn’t even tell you who was in it, it was that long ago. I’m proud of our kids and the goal now will be to rest and see if we can make a run in the NIT.”

The Tigers will find out who they’re playing around 8:30 Sunday night, by which point Delaware will be preparing for its NCAA Tournament opponent but still reveling in the afterglow of Selection Sunday and enjoying that rare sliver of time for a mid-major program in which the short- and long-term view coalesces into a perfect image.

“We’re gonna celebrate the heck out of this when we can,” Inglesby said. “It’s a huge statement for our program — it’s great for the University of Delaware, it’s great for the state of Delaware, being the only, we like to say, pro team in town. Just proud of our guys, I wanted nothing more for them (than) to be able to experience this and enjoy a night like this, to be able to cut down nets and hats and shirts season.

“And we get a chance Sunday night — there’s nothing better, it’s like Christmas morning for a student-athlete to be able to be there and watch Selection Sunday and see your name pop up and see where we’re going.”

Source: Forbes

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