Commentary: Road struggles and a short rotation plaguing Delaware men’s basketball

Managing Sports Editor

Long faces engulfed the away bench last Thursday night, as it slowly became reality that the previously 2-20 Monmouth Hawks could seal their first home victory of the season and second conference win in ten games.

Just one week earlier, Hampton University played host to a similar scene – cheering and celebrating an upset victory in the confines of their home arena, as the road bench could only watch and wonder what went wrong.

Both times, Delaware was the victim of an upset, letting the Hawks and the Pirates secure their second conference victories (at the time) of the year.

As a result, the Hens have plummeted down the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) standings in part due to that 67-66 loss to Hampton (6-18, 3-8 CAA) on Jan. 26 and the more recent 70-62 head-scratcher last Thursday versus Monmouth (4-20, 3-8).

Spread amongst perhaps the two most inexplicable losses of the season have been other heartbreaking defeats in conference play. Delaware (12-13, 4-8) put forth a valiant effort at Drexel (13-11, 7-5) back on Jan. 21, coming back from a halftime deficit to force overtime with the Dragons, before scoring just one point in the extra period, falling 77-74.

An even split of three road games and three home games remain for the Hens, and with their 2-9 road record, breaking .500 in those six games will be no easy task. Delaware has not won on the road since a pair of New Jersey trips last calendar year, versus Princeton (Dec. 16) and Rider (Dec. 19). 

Being winless on the road in the CAA never helps, but more so, coach Martin Ingelsby’s squad has been marred by injuries, and the lack of depth to counter any short absences from their starters. Four of their five typical starters have missed games – Jyáre Davis (one), Ebby Asamoah (two), LJ Owens (three) and Jameer Nelson Jr. (four).

Jyàre Davis was a critical part of last year’s Blue Hens group that won the CAA title as a No. 5 seed. This season, Delaware is likely to take an even lower seeding into the conference tournament.
Patrick LaPorte/THE REVIEW

Christian Ray, the first-year transfer from La Salle that is averaging a team-high 8.8 rebounds per game, is the only player to have started every game for the Hens. 

The injuries have made apparent a weak bench and small rotation compared to Delaware’s CAA counterparts. Guards Gianmarco Arletti (21.8 minutes per game and nine starts), Cavan Reilly (16.8 minutes per game) and Johnny McCoy (13.4 minutes per game, three starts) are the only bench constants. 

Reilly has been a star as a freshman, making nearly 50% of his three-pointers and often hitting timely shots in close games. But even he sits at just 5.5 points per game, while Arletti has 5.6 points per contest and just a 38% field goal rate. McCoy is largely quiet in the scoring area, at under two points a game.

When any of the starters have been out, the onus has only increased on the point guard, Nelson Jr. (team-high 19.6 points per game), and the team’s only starting forward, Davis (16.9 points per game). The 6-foot-7-inch Davis is tasked with manning the paint for Delaware, with the other four starters listed as guards, plus Ingelsby’s three main guard reserves.

6-foot-9-inch forward Nigel Shadd has been largely absent from the court as of late after playing a chunk of minutes during the non-conference portion of the schedule. 6-foot-9-inch senior forward Aleks Novakovich might be the only consistent bench forward, but he has played just 8.4 minutes on average since his return from injury this winter, and is not a typical post presence, but more so of a stretch big (all of his points this season come from three-pointers).

Lots of teams in the CAA trot out four guards on the court at once, but sizable, rebound-focused forwards like Drexel’s Amari Williams and Northeastern’s Chris Doherty have given the Hens fits inside. Ray, who checks in at 6 feet, 6-inches and 210 lbs, has a special knack for winning rebound battles, but he himself can only do so much.

Doherty and the Huskies (8-14, 4-7 CAA) showed this back in mid-January when they outrebounded Delaware by a whopping 45-19 margin, en route to a 59-58 victory. Since then, Ingelsby’s group has clamped down on the boards better, but no matter the reasoning, each and every conference loss has been a dagger to a team seeking to defend their CAA Championship from last March.

Currently, the Blue Hens sit in a tie for 9th in the 13-team CAA, a mighty dangerous spot considering the top four teams receive two off days during the CAA Tournament and the schools fifth through 11th receive the first day off. Elon (5-19, 3-8), Hampton and Monmouth are just a half-game behind Delaware, plus the latter two schools own a tiebreaker over the Hens.

If Ingelsby’s crew cannot tread water above the bottom two spots, there is a chance they will be tasked with the No. 12 and No. 13 matchup to begin the conference tourney, which means being asked to win five games in five days, as if four games in four days wouldn’t be challenging enough.

For Delaware to make a late-season resurgence and stand any shot at making noise in the CAA tournament (Mar. 3 to Mar. 7 in Washington, D.C.), someone will have to take a leap forward on offense aside from Nelson Jr. and Davis. 

In late-game situations, teams have laser-focused on Nelson Jr. outside the arc and Davis in the mid-range, often double-teaming the two Delaware stars and forcing the ball into the hands of others. Perhaps Owens (10.0 points per game) could arise as a more reliable third option, but before recently being sidelined with a wrist injury, he has struggled from beyond the arc, shooting 31%, a major dropoff from his 43% rate at UMBC last season.

Arletti has shown more on defense (a team-high 22 blocks), while Reilly’s strength has been catch-and-shoot threes, not creating his own looks as often. Asamoah’s three-point shooting has taken a major step back, dropping from 40% last year to 30% so far in the 2022-2023 season.

Ray averages just over nine points per game, but typically finds his looks off of offensive rebounds or backdoor cuts to the basket assisted by other players. Finding a third go-to scorer just might not be in the cards for this year’s Blue Hens, which makes a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament all that much more unlikely.

As Nelson Jr. and Davis will likely continue to pace the offense and pour in the most buckets, Ingelsby will be tasked with managing a team that has a short rotation, limited ways to score, and most importantly, a small margin for error, especially when not in the Bob Carpenter Center.