This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our last installment took a look at Nicholls State from the Southland Conference. Previous pieces in the series also looked at Mount St. Mary’s and South Dakota. The next program in our series is Delaware basketball. Martin Ingelsby just finished his fifth season in Newark in 2020-21 and has built a program that is on the rise in the CAA.
Ingelsby took over the Blue Hens after spending 13 seasons prior as an assistant at Notre Dame, his alma mater. He had taken Delaware to a higher win total in each of his first four seasons, including a 22-win campaign in 2019-20. In the pandemic season of 2020-21, Delaware finished at 7-8 and 5-4 in conference play. Much like their conference counterparts, COVID hit the program hard, making it tough to find their footing in a season riddled with pauses for both themselves and their opponents. I had the opportunity to talk to Ingelsby about how he and his team pushed through all their challenges.
The Story of the 2020-21 Delaware Basketball Program
Where it all Began
To put the 2020-21 college basketball season into perspective, let’s go back to March 2020. In a span of 48 hours, the sport went from gearing up for the greatest tournament in sports to having it ripped away for one year. COVID had ripped the rug right out from everyone, and Delaware basketball was no different.
“I remember coming back from [last year’s] CAA Tournament,” Ingelsby said. “One day later we had a meeting with all the head coaches. They talked about coronavirus. I really didn’t know much about it. They said “we’re going to send you home for two weeks.” Then two weeks turned into month on top of month.”
The workout period over the summer is something that all coaches cherish, and it’s a great way to gear up for all the work that goes into the pre-season.
“The summer is a great opportunity from an individual skill development standpoint,” Coach stated. “You give your guys time after the season and then really get back to work, individually and collectively with our team. We weren’t able to do that.”
Trying to prepare for the grind of the season is something that can only be replicated in the gym. The Blue Hens did the best they could given the circumstances, but Zoom calls can only go so far.
“To develop relationships, you have to spend time together and be in person,” said Ingelsby. “As much as we spend time on Zoom, it just doesn’t have the same impact.”
Trying to Move Forward
The time had come for the 2020-21 season to tip off. Coach praised everyone who helped the program get the chance to play, but also acknowledged the challenges of getting to that point took a toll.
“I think our leadership, our training staff, and our medical staff did an unbelievable job creating a safe environment for our guys to be able to train,” he said. “We were very smart, but also very cautious, and it really just stripped us away from a lot of the growth we had in our program.”
Delaware basketball had their first pause of the season right as it was ready to begin. They had to cancel two games before finally opening up on December 5th against a Division II team. Coach tried to keep things in perspective for his team.
“I told our guys it beat the alternative of not playing,” Ingelsby said. “However, there were so many challenging days. We had guys that test positive. We had guys that were in quarantine for 30 some days throughout the year. It really did strip the joy out of doing what we do on a daily basis.”
The Blue Hens went 2-3 during their abbreviated non-conference schedule before opening CAA play against Charleston. Another blow to the team’s rhythm came in their first conference road series against William & Mary. Both teams agreed to cancel the second half of the series out of health and safety concerns.
“That was a tough day,” said Ingelsby. “We literally had five scholarship players eligible to play the next day. I remember telling the team that this is a tough decision, but in the moment, this is the right decision. We needed to get home and get healthy.”
Nobody could’ve foresaw what was to come.
The Month Without Delaware Basketball
The Blue Hens were able to complete the rest of their January schedule, even though there were constant concerns about the availability of players due to injuries and COVID. The calendar flipped to February shortly after a home victory against Elon. Nobody knew that would be Delaware’s last game before the CAA Tournament.
“Northeastern tested positive, then we tested positive,” stated Coach. “We were coming off our pause and then Towson tested positive. We went 37 days without playing a college basketball game. I give our guys a heck of a lot of credit for staying positive and keeping a great attitude about it.”
Going a month without playing a game during the middle of a season is unprecedented. That was doubled down by the ongoing pandemic.
“You can’t reference “well, two years ago we did it this way,”” Ingelsby said. “I felt I didn’t coach basketball, but instead coaching the health and safety of our players to make sure they got their testing in and that they were socially distancing.”
Coach Ingelsby and his staff did everything they could to try and keep their players game ready while balancing all the protocols in place.
“We were to a point in February where we only had six guys available to practice,” stated Ingelsby. “We were literally playing three-on-three on the side courts just to get our guys that were active a good workout. We had guys with their phones at practice with the trainer asking “did you get the test results yet?””
Starting Just to Finish
Finally, the time had come to play a game again. Delaware basketball was scheduled to play Hofstra in the CAA Tournament on March 7th.
“We talked about getting back to a great week of practice for Delaware basketball,” Ingelsby said. “We actually had officials come in on Sunday before the Hofstra weekend to simulate a game, and it was ugly. But, at least we treated it like a game mentally to feel like we had a game under our belt.”
The Blue Hens fought hard, but ultimately dropped the contest 83-75, ending their season. The outcome didn’t keep Coach from feeling like they did everything they could to prepare give the circumstances.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t beat Hofstra, but I felt like we were ready to play,” Coach said. “We were ready to compete. We had a two point lead at half, and it was kind of down to the wire. We didn’t get it done, but we also didn’t lose by 20.”
Given everything Delaware basketball had gone through, being able to complete 15 games this past season seems like a blessing. With all of the stops and starts throughout, a rhythm just couldn’t be found.
“As I step back and look at last year, we weren’t ready to play some of these games,” Ingelsby said. “We were playing these games, but we were not ready. It’s amazing how one week out, two weeks out, three weeks out of basketball conditioning can really set you back. We had guys that tested positive in November that, I’m not sure they were getting into a good rhythm until mid-to-late January.”
Coach had nothing but praise for the way his players showed up every day and did their best to fight through all the adversity.
“I feel for our guys,” he said. “Being told you’re only able to work out with these couple of guys and you can only socialize with these couple of guys. They did an unbelievable job having a great attitude about it and staying positive during such a challenging time.”
As for Ingelsby himself, he noted how rough the year was for himself as well.
“It was by far the most difficult season of college basketball that I have ever been apart of in my 20+ years of coaching,” he stated. “I’m excited to get back to being on the court…and appreciate the opportunity we have to be able to teach, to be able to lead, and to be educators.”
Delaware basketball returns everyone for the 2021-22 season, and the group will be stronger for what they endured last season. The Blue Hens should be right in the thick of the race in the CAA next season.