Delaware is (w)hooping it up Football-only label falls off in 27-3 year

March 18, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

NEWARK, DEL — NEWARK, Del. -- "First to ratify, last to qualify."

That's the rallying cry of the University of Delaware Blue Hens basketball team, as it heads for Dayton, Ohio, and a first-round meeting with Cincinnati in the NCAA Midwest Regional Friday night.

Delaware prides itself on being the first of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution. But such college basketball outposts as Idaho, Montana and Alaska entered the NCAA's party before the Blue Hens finally qualified this season by routing Drexel, 92-68, in the North Atlantic Conference championship.

Delaware (27-3) ended its regular season with a 20-game win streak -- the longest in the nation -- but because of the caliber of the NAC competition and a historically low basketball profile, no one is taking coach Steve Steinwedel's senior-dominated team seriously.

Oddsmakers have made the Blue Hens 16-point underdogs to Cincinnati (25-4) and 1,000-1 to win it all in Minneapolis next month.

This is all being used as a motivational tool by Steinwedel, 38, who will be matching wits Friday with Bob Huggins, who also revived a dormant program at Cincinnati.

Their friendship goes back to 1977, when Steinwedel was a first-year assistant at West Virginia and Huggins was a graduate assistant.

"Steiny likes to say he broke me into coaching," Huggins said, "but I'm not sure which way it works."

But Steinwedel remembers spending long nights with Huggins before and after Mountaineers games, sharing dreams of what it would be like to have their own basketball teams to run.

"I was single, and Huggins was married," Steinwedel recalled, "and his wife, June, put up with a lot of talk of how we would go about building our own programs and one day, having a team good enough to compete in the NCAA tourney."

But while Cincinnati had a rich basketball tradition built around the legendary Oscar Robertson and NCAA championship teams in 1961 and '62, Delaware had been best known for its strong football program -- and its football-crazy athletic director.

As ESPN sportscaster Tom Mees, a Delaware alumnus, said during the NAC final: "I think the basketball program was held back by David Nelson [the former football coach and AD, who died last November]. The administration didn't give the program the support it needed.

"Steinwedel deserves credit for coming in here and rattling chains to get things moving."

How far Delaware's program has come in a few, short years is evidenced by the building of the $20 million Bob Carpenter Sports Center, a 5,000-seat arena the Blue Hens will inaugurate next season.

But Steinwedel, who arrived in Delaware in 1985, had to lure recruits to a 2,000-seat field house that resembles an airport hangar and a rush-hour traffic jam on I-95 when more than one team choosesto use the facility at the same time.

"I told the kids I recruited they could do the same thing for Delaware basketball as the football players who sell out our 20,000-seat stadium," he said. "The focus here had always been on football. We had to show people that basketball could be entertaining, too."

Steinwedel found himself competing for talent against schools, such as La Salle and St. Joseph's, that lacked football and had rich basketball backgrounds. But with strong high school contacts in the East and some good luck, he built his team.

The Blue Hens are an odd collection of athletes. The star performer is senior forward Alex Coles of Richmond, Va., who holds the school high jump record of 7 feet 3 1/4 .

Credited with 142 dunks, Coles, 6 feet 6, was christened the Blue Hens' "Sultan of Slam." He was the first Blue Hen to score more than 1,000 points and grab more than 1,000 rebounds while also rejecting 107 shots in Delaware's aggressive defense.

"Coles is just scratching the surface of his potential," said Steinwedel.

Coles has a strong supporting cast in senior swing man Mark Murray, who was a New Jersey prep sprint champion, rugged 6-9 senior forward Denard Montgomery of Meade High, 6-11 junior center Spencer Dunkley, who is a converted cricket player from Wolverhampton, England, and precocious freshman point guard

Brian Pearl of York, Pa., a prep school All-American who chose Delaware from among 25 schools and provided the final piece in the puzzle.

"We just got lucky with Dunkley," Steinwedel said. "A friend of mine who attended my summer basketball camp told me he knew of this big kid in England that had some potential. I gave him my phone number, but never thought I'd hear from him again."

But Delaware was the first school to express interest in him, and Dunkley agreed to spend a year in high school developing his skills before enrolling.

He stumbled through his freshman season "doing some embarrassing things," but began to attract attention this season, averaging 10.9 points and 8.9 rebounds.

But Steinwedel gives his five seniors most of the credit for providing the leadership ability on a team that had been labeled under-achievers for failing to make the East Coast Conference final the previous two years.

In the past, there was too much emphasis on personal glory, or, as Dunkley said, "Everybody was trying to get theirs."

In the preseason drills, the seniors called several team meetings minus the coaches to stress the importance of team work.

Murray said: "Before, guys complained about how many shots they got. But, this year, we were only interested in winning, and you see the results."

Yes, and one day the highway sign welcoming you to Delaware just might read, "First in Basketball."

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