A four-game win streak? Check. A win over the No. 20 program in the AP Top 25? Check. If a fan knew that the Blue Demons would accomplish both of those feats before the season began, one would dance with DIBS, DePaul’s mascot, for at least 24 hours straight. However, the rest of the non-conference games haven’t proven to be as delightful.
After knocking off Western Michigan in the opener, DePaul went onto lose the next three matchups to Penn State, No. 25 South Carolina and Florida State. The common theme over that stretch was the inability to defend the basket. The Blue Demons allowed those opponents to shoot a combined 46.8 percent from the field and attempt 87 free throws, averaging out to 29 per game.
On the other side of the floor, the offense was extremely sporadic, shooting a combined 40 percent from the field through the three contests and looking helpless against a zone.
Dramatic improvements don’t occur overnight, especially when a brand new coaching staff is at the helm. Yet, the same tendencies which occurred under former head coach Oliver Purnell, seemed to be wreaking havoc again, starting with selfish basketball. Prior to DePaul’s win over George Washington, the Blue Demons averaged just nine assists per game in losses, compared to 16 in their wins.
Even in the win over Norfolk State that broke the three-game losing streak, the Spartans shot 50 percent from behind the arc.
On the other hand, the victory came with a few positives. Tommy Hamilton IV put his benching against the Seminoles in the rear view mirror, scoring 20 points on 8-of-8 shooting. Billy Garrett Jr. played brilliantly, as well, putting up 22 points, seven assists and zero turnovers. The point guard also knocked down a three-pointer from the left wing to hand DePaul the lead late in the second half.
That shot propelled DePaul to its aforementioned four-game win streak, knocking off UIC, Chicago State and Drake following the victory over Norfolk State. Garrett’s dominant performances didn’t hurt, either.
The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds, along with shooting 53.7 percent from the field through the four contests. Without a doubt, Garrett looked more confident than ever in the royal blue, scarlet red and white uniform, and his teammates followed suit.
Ironically, DePaul shot 53.7 percent from the field, too, as well as 17.5 assists per game. Hence, Leitao’s message of team basketball was received, but how long would it last?
In years past, the Blue Demon faithful saw this tale before: beat up on the weaker non-conference competition and take a slap in the face from equal or superior teams. DePaul answered the bell, losing to Little Rock, Stanford and Northwestern.
Each team presented an issue that DePaul failed to overcome. Little Rock’s scoring defense ranked No. 1 in the country, Stanford’s big men kept the Blue Demons out of the paint and Northwestern’s shooters erased a second half deficit and dominated in overtime. Nonetheless, DePaul’s mistakes hurt them just as badly.
The Blue Demons turned the ball over 53 times over the three losses, including a combined 25 from Garrett, Hamilton and Myke Henry. With the exception of letting Stanford shoot 49 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from behind the arc, DePaul’s defense appeared to improve from the first four games of the season but didn’t have much to show for it.
Additionally, this stumble showcased the same problem that the Blue Demons possessed a season ago. DePaul failed to play a full 40 minutes, especially against Northwestern. With 56 seconds left in the second half, Henry missed a dunk, allowing the Wildcats to push the floor and knock down a free throw to tie up the game.
Although attempting a one-handed dunk might’ve seem like the appropriate play in that situation, Henry should’ve laid it in off the glass or pulled the ball back out to Garrett for another possession.
After a devastating loss, there’s always the chance that a head coach loses the locker room. With that being said, Leitao and his staff, compiled with experienced coaches like Rick Carter and Patrick Sellers, decided to avoid the usual script. The Blue Demons played their best game of the season in an 82-61 win over No. 20 George Washington, and each of those leaders deserve plenty of credit.
DePaul competed for every minute of the contest on both sides of the floor, shooting 55.4 percent from the field and holding the Colonials to a 33.3 percent field goal percentage. Furthermore, the Blue Demons outrebounded George Washington 37-26 and assisted on almost half of their field goals, too.
On top of those stats, Garrett seemed extremely composed against one of the top teams in the nation, scoring 20 points, dishing out seven assists and only committed one personal foul. Staying out of foul trouble was a problem for Garrett over the most recent three-game losing streak, but the guard found a way to stay out of the zebras’ sight.
Swingman Eli Cain looked very confident as well, scoring 16 on 6-of-9 shooting. Freshmen don’t usually adjust to the collegiate level this quickly, so Cain’s performance shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Henry even found a way to partially redeem himself from the missed slam against Northwestern, throwing down a furious stuff over George Washington’s Tyler Cavanaugh. Watch a video of the highlight below.
Measuring DePaul’s first 12 games is simple: inconsistent. To alter this prognosis, the Blue Demons need to defend at a high level and play efficiently on the other end to beat the conference’s best opponents. How can they achieve this degree of success? Communicating with one another on every possession.
In the latest AP Top 25, three of the first 10 teams are from the Big East in No. 6 Xavier, No. 9 Butler and No. 10 Providence. Villanova makes an appearance at No. 17. Therefore, DePaul can’t find a way to lose focus versus teams within conference like in years past.
If the Blue Demons want a chance at playing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) this season, Leitao’s group must finish at .500 or better against the Big East. DePaul has a ways to go to achieve this goal, but it’s attainable through playing with the energy, which was evident versus George Washington, in each game.