When it comes to this year’s iteration of DePaul Men’s Basketball you are either a glass half-full or glass half-empty person. After 11 games of non-conference play, the Blue Demons sit at 8-3 and have sent mixed signals as to whether this is the season they escape the bottom of the Big East.
On one hand, DePaul has shown improvement from previous seasons and signs this year is going to be different. Of the eight wins DePaul accumulated, seven of those were against mid-major schools they entered as favorites. The exception to this was an overtime victory over Penn State in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. On the other hand in its three losses, DePaul has experienced the same late game and second half problems that plagued them much of last season.
The game against Penn State was an early test for the Blue Demons to show they can win big games this season, something they have struggled to do in the past. To their credit they were able to beat the Nittany Lions in overtime, 72-70, despite blowing a 10-point lead with 3:41 left in the game. The win gave the Blue Demons their best start since the 2008-2009 season at 3-0 and also their first win over a Big Ten opponent since they defeated Northwestern in 2013, as well as, its first win in the Gavitt Tipoff Games in its four years of existence.
After that game and starting the season 3-0 there was optimism starting to build in the locker room that this season would be different. Beating Penn State was a huge win for DePaul, especially in the fashion they did. After going 1-5 in games decided by five points or less last season, DePaul needed this early win and in the way they did to boost their confidence in close games
“It just feels so good, I’m so proud of this team and this program,” DePaul senior forward Max Strus said after beating Penn State. “From where we started and everything we went through last year, and to get a close win like this, it means so much to me that we were able to finish it. I’m telling you this is the year we are going to turn it around.”
This has been a message Strus and others on the team have been preaching to the media, after 11 games some of that has been true. However, to win more games and be competitive in the conference it starts with changing the culture that gives the team the best chance to win.
Some of that starts by beating teams you should beat, and the Blue Demons have taken care of business against those teams. Some might point to DePaul’s seven wins, not including Penn State, being not too overly impressive because the combined records of those seven teams is 30-62. Factoring in that win over Penn State as well, the combined record of those teams sits at 36-68 heading into conference play. According to the Ken Pomeroy college basketball rankings, DePaul rank 345th out of 353 Division one schools in terms of strength of schedule, one ahead of the undefeated St. John’s.
DePaul head coach Dave Leitao has talked about creating a schedule that will “build some momentum” heading into Big East play. Having an easier schedule than in years past has allowed sophomore guard Devin Gage to take time to get back in game shape and get back to the level he was playing at last season before he got injured. Also, adding in transfers like junior guard Jalen Coleman-Lands and senior forward Femi Olujobi took sometime to figure out how they would fit into this team.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Leitao said after the Boston College game. “When you put new people together and find themselves as the days and weeks go by, have done a better job of finding out who they are and how they fit in the scheme of what we are doing.”
Throughout the first 11 games DePaul have done some things well on both ends of the floor and especially against weaker opposition the Blue Demons have taken advantage of their height and size on the glass. However, one thing that keeps looming as a huge problem for DePaul is their inability to stop the three-point shoot, and stop it late in games.
DePaul ranks 287th in the country in defending the three this season with opponents shooting 36.3 percent from the 3-point line. Notre Dame hit seven of the 13 threes they took in the second half (53.8 percent), when Northwestern went on their 25-0 run in the second half, six of their eight field goals were three-point shots and most recently against Boston College, the Eagles went 2-3 from behind the arc late in that game. The Blue Demons have been able to get away with this against some of the weaker opponents they have played so far, however, against three Power-5 teams, this has been an area of weakness the Blue Demons will need to address in conference play.
As the Blue Demons head into Big East play they can take a lot of positives from their first 11 games, as well, with one of the biggest being Strus and senior guard Eli Cain have been on top of their games on most nights. Cain is averaging 14.2 points per game and a career high 4.1 assists per game. Strus is averaging 19.7 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game, which leads the team in both departments. On most nights Cain and Strus are going to be asked to carry most of the load if DePaul are going to win Big East games. Both players have been two of the biggest benefactors so far of the return of Gage, and that could play into DePaul’s favor as conference play rolls around.
“We go as Devin goes,” Cain said after the team’s win over Morgan State. “You can see if you come to one of our practices it’s evident he’s found his way back. Last year I think he had a really good start till he went down obviously but I think he’s right back on track and right where we need him to be.”
As conference play now arrives Saturday afternoon with a familiar set of opponents to open up against in Xavier and Villanova, DePaul will have two more opportunities to see truly where they stand in relation to the Big East.
How big of a jump forward the Blue Demons will be able to make might come down to the two areas they have struggled in the past: 3-point defense and late game execution.