The DePaul Blue Demons tilt against the Penn State Nittany Lions Thursday night at Wintrust Arena feels really important.
Win and the Blue Demons improve to 3-0 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. Win and the Blue Demons secure their first-ever Gavitt Tipoff Games victory, the annual showdown between teams from the Big Ten and Big East Conferences. Win and the Blue Demons have a quality victory against a major conference opponent early in the season and suddenly a lot of people in Blue Demon country will start feeling really good about themselves.
Lose and the Blue Demons will hear from everybody about how they’re no good and how playing a quality opponent exposed them as a fraud.
Three games in none of these knee-jerk reactions are fair, but basketball is a reactive world and it’s all about what have you done for me lately. This is a big game for DePaul, but it’s Nov. 15 and both teams will look remarkably different when things really start to matter in February and March.
Speaking of looking different, the complexion of Penn State’s roster looks a lot different than a year ago. That team won 26 games, finished 19th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, yet didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament and instead won the National Invitational tournament as a consolation prize. All-Big Ten selection Tony Carr paced that team with 19.6 points and 16.2 field goal attempts per game, while Shep Garner sniped 43.3 percent of the 3-point field goals he attempted last season (he’s the all-time program leader in made 3-point field goal attempts).
They are both gone now, leaving the keys to the offense to 6-foot-8-inch junior Lamar Stevens. So far Stevens has delivered, averaging 23.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game through the Nittany Lions first two contests. Reigning All-Big Ten Defensive selection Mike Watkins remains out indefinitely with off the court issues which is a big loss for the Nittany Lions. Nonetheless, defense remains a strength for Penn State with All-Big Ten Defensive selection Josh Reaves returning (led the Big Ten in steals last season) and Jamari Wheeler, a tenacious on-the-ball defender, back as well. Both players are guards and will put major pressure on Devin Gage and Eli Cain who are both coming off extremely efficient games against the Morgan State Bears.
With the Nittany Lions only favored by 1.5 points, this has the feeling of an impending dog fight with starters on both teams likely to play huge minutes. Depth hasn’t been the Blue Demons strength this season as they’ve gone seven deep and then the guys after that drop off dramatically in terms of the production they bring. At the same time, Max Strus and Cain averaged 34 and 31 minutes per game respectively last season so playing a lot is nothing out of the ordinary for either of them.
Like the Blue Demons, the Nittany Lions opted for mid-major competition for their first two games. They won both games by 15 points while the Blue Demons won their first two games by 20-plus points for those keeping score at home.