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Analysis: Small-ball Lineup Propels DePaul

In DePaul’s 78-72 win over Robert Morris at McGrath-Phillips Arena, the Blue Demons lacked an identity on offense throughout various spurts of the contest. However, one lineup appeared to gel instantly, providing a vital spark in the regular season opener.

Leading 49-43 with 11:12 left in the game, senior guard Billy Garrett Jr. picked up his fourth foul. Hence, head coach Dave Leitao sent him to the bench, plugging in Chris Harrison-Docks alongside Darrick Wood, Brandon Cyrus, Eli Cain and Tre’Darius McCallum.

“We’ve had to manage through foul trouble (in the exhibition game and tonight),” Leitao said. “I was thinking, ‘Let’s see how we respond.’”

Considering none of those players stand above 6-foot-7, DePaul clearly lacked size on the floor. Nevertheless, both intellect and athleticism prevailed over the aforementioned-apprehension. The Blue Demons went a 14-8 run during the five-minute stretch and, more importantly, extended their lead to double-figures (56-46 with 8:19 left) for the first time in the game.

When the spurt began, Harrison-Docks was the first one to exhibit his savviness. After collecting a rebound, he immediately pushed the ball in transition. Then, instead of attempting to force the ball to one of his teammates, the graduate transfer attacked the rim and drew a foul.

Subsequently, the 5-foot-11, 194-pounder knocked down both of his attempts at the line, handing DePaul an eight-point edge. Although it was a simple play, the Blue Demons have lacked personnel in the past with the capability of delivering quick-witted execution in critical moments of a matchup.

His previous experience at Western Kentucky should continue to pay dividends.

Later on, holding onto a 53-46 lead, McCallum forced Colonials’ 6-foot-5 forward Aaron Tate into a turnover. Within seconds, he alertly rifled a bullet towards Wood, who took a few dribbles before sending the Blue Demons’ crowd into a frenzy with a one-handed dunk.

“He (McCallum) is playing with the kind of energy that makes for positive contributions,” Leitao said.

Moreover, the connection between McCallum and Wood was somewhat poetic. While Wood has accumulated two campaigns in Lincoln Park, IL, they both started their collegiate careers at Junior College programs. Thus, their cohesion on just one pass signified unity between two players, who were determined to find their way to Division I.

As a senior, Wood looked more composed than in previous seasons. The 6-foot-5, 178-pounder shot an efficient five-of-eight from the field (62.5 percent), none of which appeared to be forced.

Additionally, following only six minutes of action in the first half due to his two fouls, McCallum played a team-high 19 minutes in the second half. Overall, the junior produced 10 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals. Plus, he took seven free-throw attempts, weaving together a rock-solid all-around performance in his first ever Divison I matchup.

“You just gotta stay focused and come back stronger when you get into the game,” McCallum said.

About two minutes later, Cain entrenched himself into the mix. First, he knocked down a deep three-pointer from the top of the arc off a pass via Harrison-Docks. Next, McCallum found him for a layup. Those two buckets were a part of his team-high 21 points on the night.

A campaign ago, the now-sophomore shot 42.5 percent from behind the arc, ranking second in the Big East. Still, Robert Morris’ personnel preferred to lay off his jump shot, anticipating he would drive. Since he has bulked up to 204 pounds, expect future opponents to also struggle to determine his shot selection.

Finally, seconds after the New Jersey native scored back-to-back baskets, Cyrus made the finest defensive play of the game for the Blue Demons. With 6:45 remaining in the half, he leapt off the hardwood and somehow blocked 6-foot-10 Braden Burke’s mid-range jumper.

The three-star recruit was known for his defensive instincts at La Lumiere High School, and his bothersome length was extremely evident versus the Colonials, playing a team-high 31 minutes. In that span, the 6-foot-5, 189-pounder recorded the aforementioned-block, along with two steals.

Even though the unit was broken up with about six minutes to go, the coaching staff shouldn’t hesitate to return to it on Thursday night against Rutgers.

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