NEWARK, Del. -- The challenge for Delaware this season was always going to be proving it had a supporting cast capable of keeping its show running through March. The Blue Hens just didn't figure to have this many lines in the first act.
With All-American Elena Delle Donne sidelined indefinitely while she deals with the effects of Lyme disease, a team that desperately needs its best player back in the lineup is trying equally desperately to show that it doesn't.
You're reading about Delaware in this space because we at espnW ranked the Blue Hens No. 10 in our preseason poll, much the same preseason territory they occupied in both major polls (No. 11 in the AP, No. 10 in the coaches' poll). That was coming off a season in which they went 31-2, losing only to Maryland before a second-round exit against Kansas in the NCAA tournament. Yet they clearly aren't the 10th best team in the country at the moment, not without a player who averaged 28.1 points per game last season and not after they followed an opening win against Sam Houston State with losses at home against Georgetown and at Duquesne to exit the preseason WNIT.
It's rather obvious what Delaware is not. What's left to determine is what it can be.
"With the uncertainty of what's going on with Elena, when she'll be back or when she won't be back, this team has got to look forward," Delaware coach Tina Martin said after the game against Georgetown. "At this point, right now, we got to become a better basketball team. Regardless of Elena's situation, hopefully she's back soon, but we can't sit around. We've got to move on; we've got to get to be a better basketball team."
The good news is they have time to regroup. Delaware plays just twice more this month, home games against perennial Big East struggler Providence and a St. Bonaventure team that is going through some recalibration of its own. The Bonnies lost key players from last season's Atlantic 10 championship effort and will be playing their fourth game in eight days when they arrive in town. Time is presumably the best hope for getting Delle Donne back. It's also the best hope for making the team's painful present pay off in the future. As long as the star returns at something close to 100 percent down the road, the current situation could ultimately prove helpful in curing a Delle Donne dependence.
Defense remains a team strength; even without Delle Donne, who blocked nearly three shots a game last season, opponents this season are shooting just 31 percent and have 57 turnovers against just 24 assists. But consider that in the loss against Kansas last season, Delle Donne scored 34 points on 9-of-18 shooting. The rest of the team scored 30 points on 12-of-38 shooting. That wasn't an isolated incident.
"I think it really helps us develop more roles on the team," senior guard Lauren Carra said of now playing without that security blanket. "I mean, offensive production, a lot of people say, other than Elena, we struggled to score last year. I think right now we're trying to find other scoring options on the floor: Who can score where? Who can score when? I think that's helping us see better of when Elena comes back that when they start keying on her, other people can score, too."
Many of the players in question have been through this before. After a stellar first season on the court for the Blue Hens, Delle Donne suffered the effects of Lyme disease in her second season, missing 12 games entirely and playing through fatigue and pain for more than a month before leaving the lineup. A season after making the NCAA tournament, they struggled through Delle Donne's struggles to a 20-14 overall record, including a 10-8 record in the Colonial Athletic Association, and exited the postseason WNIT in the first round. Excluding Delle Donne, five rotation players from that team remain part of the regular mix this season, led by Carra and Danielle Parker. Two more players who practiced that season while sitting out as transfers are also still around as key contributors, starting guards Trumae Lucas and Akeema Richards. Those are the players now asked to avoid a repeat.
There were stretches in the game against Georgetown when Carra was the most productive player on the court. Sugar Rodgers finished with All-American numbers, but Carra outplayed her in the first half. Her outside shot missing the mark, the senior piled up rebounds without concern for her own body in what was a physical game from start to finish. She had 17 offensive rebounds in 33 appearances last season; she had four in just 33 minutes against the Hoyas. She tipped balls to prolong possessions, helped on defense and got into the lane and drew fouls on offense. She did a dozen things to help bring the Blue Hens back into the lead after they fell behind by eight points early.
In short, even when her shot wasn't falling, Carra looked like a player who belonged on the court for just about any program in any conference in the country, as did Parker in battling her way to 11 points and 10 rebounds. Two years ago, a bad shooting night might have meant the end of Carra's productive contributions, might have gotten in her head.
"It would have," Carra said. "I think definitely sophomore year, when Elena sat out, that happened a lot. … We were trying to just get wins at that point. I think that happened a lot then, when we'd get down on ourselves if things weren't going right. … This year, it's going to be four years of experience under our belts. We're a lot more mature, we have the people around us this year."
That's the positive spin. The other side, one which left Carra almost apologetic in tone as she talked with notable frankness about her struggles to get shots to fall from the 3-point line against the Hoyas, is that Delaware needs her to hit 3-pointers more consistently to be at its best -- just as it needs Parker to be an assertive scorer, needs Lucas and Kayla Miller to take care of the ball and needs Richards to defend and rebound. All the hours of work in the summer matter. Effort and improved toughness matter, and Delaware has already shown both this season.
But at some point, especially in the game's upper echelon, execution is everything. You are either good enough or you aren't. The Blue Hens haven't proved that they are yet, but they haven't shown that they are not, either.
"People think that we can only play with Elena," Parker said. "We have a lot to prove, just that it wasn't a fluke last year and we have more things to accomplish this year."
If they're being honest, nobody here is deluding themselves into thinking they can accomplish those things without Delle Donne, the kind of singular talent who comes around once in a generation and even less frequently than that at a school like Delaware. But she also needs to be able to count on more from her teammates for this team to dream of a long run in March. For that to happen, perhaps they had to face life without her for a bit.
In that sense, it's up to them.
"We left last year, we left Arkansas after our loss to Kansas with a bad taste in our mouth," Carra said. "We put a lot of work in this summer. And, I mean, a huge part is missing right now in Elena, but once she comes back and once we get going and we start playing again, when we hit the floor running, come March, when we get everything together, we're going to be a good team."