But no team works in a vacuum, and January’s teammates filled the void left by her.
“It is remarkable just to have three starters go down (Mart’e Grays tore her Achilles tendon in the preseason and Ashton Millender has been out with a foot injury since early in the season),” January said this past Thursday. “It would have been easy for us to make excuses and we did not do that at all. We have been positive through everything despite [all the injuries] that have happened, and that is something that I am so proud of. Coach Bruno is a no-excuses coach and he was really able to get that through to us this year, and it was fun to watch.”
Bruno is in his 31st year at DePaul and he has presided over a program that has been to 21 NCAA tournaments, including a current streak of 14 straight, and to four Sweet 16’s. But to him, he is another worker on the team, albeit a hard one, and his being named Big East Coach of the Year this season is a reflection of that work.
“I don’t look at myself as a great coach; I look at myself as someone who works very hard,” Bruno said. “We work very hard in knowing our players and teaching our players how to get better. But basically, we recruit good people and I have great assistants in Jill Pizzotti, Lisa Ryckbosch, Bart Brooks, and Candis Blankson. Game time is the players’ time and we try to put the players in position to do really good at game time.”
“Do really good” this season includes a 24-6 record, a fourth consecutive Big East regular season title, and an appearance in the AP Top 25 poll each and every week.
It was clear at the beginning of the season that January was the capstone on DePaul’s player pyramid. But that pyramid became inverted as the season went along due to the injuries to January and Millender.
Senior Brooke Schulte has scored in double figures in 18 consecutive games, including a career-high 35 points versus Marquette. She led the conference in scoring at 20.8 ppg. She was honored with numerous Big East awards this season, including unanimous First Team; unanimous Player of the Year; and Co-Most Improved Player. But the award that most acknowledges what she has done this season- and what DePaul does as a team every season- is Scholar-Athlete of the Year, an award that shows the transfer of Schulte’s skills from the classroom to the courtroom and vice versa.
“Being dedicated to what you do and taking everything one step at a time [is a big part of it],” Schulte said. “It is good to compartmentalize. Time management and being able to handle school work and then getting into the gym all correlates to school work because you are disciplined and that discipline then carries over to practice.
“I think I have always been decent at focusing because I am a health sciences major, so I have four-hour labs to deal with and a lot of homework on my plate, so I would always be very proactive and I work ahead. And I think that carries over to the basketball court.”
But she also said something that is applicable to every DePaul women’s basketball student-athlete: “It’s a team sport and there are no individual awards. My teammates are constantly pushing me and keeping me in a positive mindset.”
Senior transfer Jacqui Grant, now in her second year at DePaul, was also named All-Big East First Team. She was also named Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Grant led the conference in blocks at 1.7 per game and totaled a conference-high 11 double-doubles, including 27 points and 17 rebounds versus Marquette. She finished second in rebounding at 10.3 per game.
“Defense is something I always thought I could improve upon coming to DePaul,” Grant said. “ [The Big East] is a little quicker than in the Big Ten. Defense and rebounding are what makes us, us. My preseason goals were to get better every day. One of the main goals was to improve my rebounding. Averaging 11- not 10- rebounds was definitely something that coach Bruno helped me push for. There were times when we met as a team and he would go around asking everybody their goals, and he made sure I said 11. He definitely gave that confidence that I could do that and my bumping up my rebound average was due to his confidence in me.”
Sophomore Tanita Allen was named the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year, a role she was not accustomed to, but one in which she has excelled. Allen was a three-year starter at perennial powerhouse Whitney Young High School in Chicago, but the change in role at DePaul has made little difference in her play.
“I don’t think it’s about starting as a player,” Allen said. “ I feel like if I get a chance to come in a game, I should just try my hardest, contribute, and do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Allen has averaged 8.9 ppg and 5.3 rpg this season. She has two double-doubles this season, both in points and rebounds. She had a 30-point outburst versus Seton Hall this season and shot 11-14 from the field, including 5-7 from behind the arc in that game. She has scored in double figures nine times in conference play this season.
When Millender went down nine game into the season, the vacuum was filled by freshman guard Kelly Campbell, a unanimous pick to the Big East All-Freshman Team. Campbell is averaging 7.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg. She has scored a season-high 16 points twice this season and scored 10 points versus No. 1 UConn in her sixth collegiate game. She is fifth in the conference in assist/turnover ratio. Campbell’s role this season has been from coming off the bench, to starting when Millender went down, and now back to the bench with January now healthy.
“I could not have stepped into my role without my teammates’ support, and playing with them makes it a lot easier, along with the support of the upper classmen and the coaching staff,” Campbell said.
DePaul enters the Big East tournament this weekend as the No. 1 seed. The Blue Demons played well early in the season at the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament, beating a solid Western Kentucky team, matching up against then-No. 5 Baylor, and shellacking then-No. 11 Syracuse 108-84. DePaul finished the conference season 16-2.
But one can take the word of Schulte if the thought is present that the Blue Demons have already played their best basketball of the season.
“We are at the floor right now. And when we hit the ceiling, you’ll know. “