LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Tina Martin’s best recruiting pitch for Elena Delle Donne was to do no recruiting at all.
The Delaware coach’s decision has paid off for the third-seeded Blue Hens (30-1), who open play in the NCAA tournament against Arkansas-Little Rock (20-12) today.
Delaware is making its third tournament appearance, all under Martin’s leadership. No Blue Hens team, however, has arrived with this level of hype – primarily due to the presence of the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne.
The former national high school player of the year, Delle Donne originally signed with Connecticut before returning home to Delaware after two days. She originally claimed basketball burnout before realizing homesickness was the cause of her stress.
The underlying theme of that stress was simple: Recruiting.
Long a basketball prodigy, she received a whirlwind of attention from the top basketball programs and coaches in the country, and Delle Donne limited her college choices to only the cream of the crop as a sophomore.
“I thought I should go to a nationally ranked school and try to win national titles, but I was able to realize that wasn’t the right thing for me,” Delle Donne said.
After leaving the Huskies, Delle Donne enrolled at Delaware – appearing to leave basketball behind for good. She didn’t let go of athletics entirely, playing volleyball.
But after volleyball season Delle Donne eventually set up a meeting with Martin, who guided the Blue Hens to the NCAA tournament in 2001 and 2007. Martin had offered Delle Donne a scholarship as an eighth-grader but was well aware of Delaware’s place in the national pecking order.
Martin was also aware that Delle Donne was on campus her freshman season, but she made it a point to avoid putting any pressure on her.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Why didn’t you recruit her?’ Martin said.
“She had already been recruited by all the top programs in the country. There was nothing that I could give to her that would make her decide to play basketball. She had to decide that in her own heart.”
Delle Donne averaged 25.3 points per game as a freshman, scoring a career-high 54 points against James Madison. She then averaged 26.7 points last season, but the Blue Hens missed out on the NCAA tournament both seasons and settled for the WNIT.
Delaware’s only loss this season was 85-76 at No. 5 Maryland on Dec. 29. Since then, the Blue Hens have won 20 in a row and Delle Donne has been better than ever – adding 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.