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Delaware’s confidence and hot start are spurred by an elite backcourt

Nate Darling thinks the Blue Hens have the best guards in the country.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 14 Never Forget Tribute Classic - Delaware v Villanova Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NEWARK, NJ — Delaware had one guaranteed chance against a high-major opponent on a neutral court this season. It was on Saturday against Villanova in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center, and the Blue Hens lost, 78-70.

After the game, the team seemed confident it could get another shot, the next one coming in March at an NCAA Tournament site.

Delaware has now lost two in a row, but it hasn’t taken much shine off of its best start in program history. Martin Ingelsby’s group won its first nine games. It didn’t take down any ranked opponents or spark a Jon Rothstein brutality tweet, but it was impressive nonetheless. Since the season tipped off, Delaware has risen almost 100 spots in KenPom, defeated teams from the Missouri Valley and Conference USA, and become one of the most efficient shooting teams in the country.

An eight-point loss to a nationally ranked Big East school when the Blue Hens were down only two possessions in the final eight minutes is only going to bolster the confidence of a team that wasn’t lacking for it in the first place.

“Coming in, we were looking at each other like ‘yo, we might be the best backcourt in the country,’ you know?” Darling said after the Villanova loss. “It doesn’t matter where we’re playing or what we’re doing, we’ve got confidence. I feed off [Kevin Anderson’s] confidence, he feeds off my confidence. When we’re hooping, we’re just out there having fun and being basketball players.”

Darling may be wearing his blue-and-gold-tinted glasses when he says the Blue Hens have the best backcourt in the country — as he should be — but he’s right that the guards are damn good.

It starts with Darling, the transfer from UAB. He’s making 46 percent of his three-point attempts and has topped 20 points in six of his 10 games. Just as importantly, he’s become the No. 1 threat on an opponent’s scout, which has allowed his teammates more freedom offensively. Though he finished with 29 points against the Wildcats, he only had five after his first 18 minutes of play. Villanova’s Collin Gillespie hounded him, preventing the 6’5 junior from getting clean looks. As a result, the point guard Anderson shouldered the early scoring load, going 4-4 from the field in the first 10:30, including three layups.

“We tried to speed it up early and they were just driving the ball, getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They were aggressive getting to the hole.”

Anderson scores when he needs to — he’s up to 43 percent from three — and averages 4.6 assists per game. He’s also a good defender and, though the numbers haven’t shown it this year, was nearly automatic from the line in his first two seasons.

Then there’s Ryan Allen. He hasn’t found consistency in his shot yet this year but has had his share of big games. Against Stony Brook on Nov. 27, while Darling was having the worst game of his season, Allen stepped up with 22 points on 8-16 shooting with four threes. He also had 17 against Southern Illinois along with a pair of steal and assists in an ugly 56-54 win in which the Blue Hens needed every bit of offensive production they could muster.

Justyn Mutts has held down the front court as one of the best rebounders in the CAA and a guy more than capable of getting 20-plus points on a given night. So while the guards are the strength of this team, the Blue Hens are a complete team. Just as importantly, they are experienced.

The sophomore Mutts is one of only two underclassmen in the regular rotation and as a result, they play like a team ready to break through onto the national stage. They’re not typically sloppy on offense, despite what their 10 second-half turnovers against Villanova may have indicated. They take smart shots, ranking 33rd in the nation in effective field goal percentage. And, most importantly, they’ve improved every season under Ingelsby. He won just 13 games in 2016-17, his first season, then won 14 the next season, 17 last year, and already nine in 2019-20 before Christmas. They’ve been together for a while now — even Darling, who sat out last year as a redshirt — and know what has to happen for Delaware to emerge from a crowded CAA.

“I think this is a game that a lot of people had circled on our schedule for a long time when we announced it in the middle of the summer,” Ingelsby said. “It felt like kind of an NCAA Tournament game. Neutral court. Against Villanova. Hopefully we can remember the feeling of what it felt like to play on a big stage like this and hopefully have an opportunity again moving forward.”

There’s a long way to go before March and a major test awaits on Monday, even if those outside the program don’t realize it. It’s on the schedule as a game against Delaware State, the second-worst team in Division I per KenPom. The Hornets haven’t beaten a Division I team this season and have only played two to within single digits.

They’re almost exactly as bad as they were last year when these two teams played, when Delaware State also had not beaten a D-I team yet and were ranked at the bottom of KenPom. The Blue Hens were coming off a near-upset win at Stony Brook, then fell flat, inexcusably losing 73-71. Avoiding a letdown for a second straight year will be another test, not only to see how good this Delaware team is, but to test how much those intangibles that come with experience are really worth.

“I’m never going to forget that Delaware State loss,” Darling said on Saturday. “We shouldn’t have lost that game. That will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I will always think about that. So coming up Monday, we’re going in there like we know that we owe them something. We’re going in strong, basically.”