DePaul's Eleven – Non-conference Schedule Preview

Eleven non-conference games precede DePaul's men's basketball team's official entry into Big East Conference play. I was asked to write a preview of these games. Rather than get into a hard-core analysis of statistics, strategy, and other basketball-related words that start with "s", I've decided to do something a bit more light-hearted. What else has "eleven" prominently displayed in it? The answer came right to me (and probably to you, if you like "guys movies"): "Ocean's Eleven".

Each of DePaul's opponents brings different strengths to the table, just like each of the members of "Ocean's Eleven" brought unique skills to the group, so I've decided to compare the two.

As such, I present to you "DePaul's Eleven"…

Opponents: Bradley (11/19) and at Northern Illinois (11/28)
"Ocean's Eleven" Characters: Virgil and Turk Malloy

Virgil and Turk were omnipresent during the movie. They created a distraction so Livingston could set up a closed-circuit television feed. They drove Danny, Basher, Yen and Linus to pick up the "pinch". They helped deliver Yen to the vault. They were the paramedics who attempted to revive Saul. And on, and on, and on. None of what they did was Earth-shattering, but they kept things moving along. Had they been discovered or failed in any of their roles, the whole mission could have been jeopardized.

DePaul found out first-hand last year what happens if you don't take care of the mundane business of beating teams you're supposed to beat. Northern Illinois came to Allstate and put on a three-point shooting clinic in upsetting DePaul. Bradley got the best of the Demons in Peoria. Both losses turned out to be anchors on DePaul's RPI rank all season that likely prevented them from an NCAA Tournament bid in 2005. The prognosis this year is the same for both teams. Both play in mid-major leagues in which they are not in the upper echelon (Bradley in the Missouri Valley, Northern Illinois in the MAC). Both will struggle to play .500 in conference. And both again could ruin DePaul's mission of an NCAA Tournament berth if the Demons don't pay attention to the details like Virgil and Turk did.

Opponent: Northwestern (11/26)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Linus Caldwell

The most inexperienced member of the group, Linus is brought along because he's an accomplished pickpocket. He also has the right connections, as his father is well-respected by the group. He shows his inexperience numerous times in the movie. First, he gets his own wallet stolen by Danny. Then, at the initial scheming session, when Danny is explaining what the crew is going to do, Linus says, "Smash and grab job, eh?" Rusty responds with, "Slightly more complicated than that." A rebuked Linus pauses, then says, "Well, yea." Linus also doesn't stay in the van when the guys go to get the "pinch", leading to him being chased by security guards around the complex and almost ruining the mission.

Yet Linus also comes through in big moments, usually unexpectedly. He makes Terry Benedict believe he is with the Nevada Gaming Commission, and he pickpockets the elevator code from Benedict's inside pocket. He's also Danny's right-hand man in getting the vault to open.

Northwestern under Bill Carmody is like Linus. They get some respect for playing in a BCS conference. They take some "dumb" out-of-conference losses: in 2005, New Mexico State; in 2004, against Mississippi Valley State; in 2003, against IUPUI, and so on. Yet they are also always good for a pleasant shock or two, especially at home: in 2005, they were Iowa and Minnesota; in 2004, they were Illinois and Wisconsin; in 2003, they were Purdue and Indiana. So, will DePaul make Northwestern look like the Linus who got caught during the "pinch" fiasco? Or will DePaul make them look like the Linus who picked Terry Benedict's pocket?

Opponent: Creighton (11/30)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Saul Bloom

Played extremely well by Carl Reiner, you were never sure if Saul was going to be up to his task of playing arms dealer Lyman Zerga as part of the scam to steal from Benedict. He was reluctant to come to Las Vegas. He was the most nervous when the plan was laid out. And he was overwhelmed when he was getting fitted for his suits, remarking, "This is very nice material." Yet when Danny asked him, "Saul, are you sure you're ready to do this?" Saul responded in a very measured tone, "If you ever ask me that question again, Daniel, you will not wake up the following morning." And when it was show time, Saul delivered a virtuoso performance.

The Missouri Valley Conference was in the spotlight quite a bit last season. Southern Illinois was Southern Illinois….again. Wichita State seemed poised for an NCAA Tournament bid until a late-season collapse crushed their hopes. Northern Iowa received one of the last at-large NCAA bids, as indicated by their #11-seed. Yet in the end, it was the old standby, the Creighton Blue Jays, who won the conference tournament and made their fifth NCAA Tournament since 2000. It doesn't matter their roster or their competition – they will be there at the end. In the past six seasons, Creighton has amassed at least 20 wins per year. They've finished with an RPI rank in the Top 50 four of those six years and in the Top 80 all six of those years. No matter their level of fanfare (or lack thereof), don't sleep on Creighton. Otherwise, the next morning might be as painful as it could have been for Danny for doubting Saul.

Opponent: Bucknell (12/3)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: The Amazing Yen

When Danny and Rusty go to check out the Amazing Yen for the first time, Danny is not particularly impressed right off the bat. He seems bored and even asks Rusty, "Who else is on the list?" for a "grease man". As Yen and the others continue to perform, Danny starts to say, "I don't know…this doesn't seem that…", at which point Yen does a series of moves that nobody expected and leaves Danny open-mouthed.

The same could be said about the 2004-2005 Bucknell Bison. They were just another member of the Patriot League for a good portion of the season. Sure, they had a nice road win at Pitt, but then Georgetown won at Pitt the very next game, and the feat didn't seem so impressive. They finished second place in the Patriot League to perennial powerhouse Holy Cross. The conference championship game was to be played on Holy Cross' home court. Congratulations on a good season, Bucknell – have fun in the NIT. Surely they couldn't stop the Crusader juggernaut, the team who put first-round scares into every team they played in the NCAA Tournament? But the Bison triumphed, and off they went to the NCAAs.

As we all know, Bucknell then went on to defeat Kansas before succumbing to Wisconsin in the second round in a very gritty effort. And this year, there's no reason to think the Bison won't be back to the NCAAs. They're returning just about all of their key components, including their top five leading scorers from 2004-2005. DePaul can't take Bucknell too lightly, or else they, too, could be left amazed and open-mouthed – just like Holy Cross and Kansas last year.

Opponent: UAB (12/6)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Frank Catton

It's clear that Danny Ocean had respect for Frank Catton, as he is the first member of the crew Ocean comes to see. Catton doesn't have a lot of camera time to himself relative to many of the other characters, but his work is very important. He's the one who becomes employed by the Bellagio so he can get to the inner workings of the casino (stealing the floor plans, learning the names of strippers that the techies like, etc.). You get the sense that after Danny and Rusty, Frank is the most respected member of the crew. It doesn't seem to bother him that he doesn't take much of a leadership role in many of the group's initiatives. He just does his job.

So goes UAB. Within Conference USA, they were and still will be considered a very formidable opponent. Conventional wisdom is that with many heavyweights leaving the conference, UAB will be battling Memphis for the top spot for years to come. Outside of Conference USA, however, UAB never really garnered much national respect, despite an RPI rank that always hovered inside or around the Top 50 and three NCAA Tournament wins in the past two years (something not many schools can say). Losing the Taylor twins will be a loss, but they should be guided by the senior leadership of Demario Eddins. And Mike Anderson may be the best coach in C-USA. They'll likely fly under the radar again this year, but that's okay by them. Those in the know give this team respect like Danny Ocean gave Frank Catton.

Opponent: at Dayton (12/10)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Basher Tarr

Everything associated with Basher was loud. Not only was he the explosives expert, but he also commanded a lot of attention with his actions, both with his loud voice and his confident manner. As he was driving to set up the "pinch", Livingston radioed him, which let to this exchange (paraphrased):

Livingston: "Basher, what's your status."
Basher: "Easy now, I'll be there in a minute."
Livingston: "We don't have a minute. Yen's going to suffocate."
Basher: "Well, then you better leave off bothering me."

You always got the sense Basher thought he was the most important part of the team, even though he wasn't even the first pick for his own area of expertise. He was still very good, and he got the job done (mostly), but you wondered if he was worth all the pomp and circumstance.

Dayton under Brian Gregory is the same way. Every vacant coaching job in the Midwest has Gregory linked to it…including DePaul twice. To Gregory's credit, he doesn't openly campaign for the jobs – he just always seems to be the "hot, young candidate". When Oliver Purnell left for Clemson in 2003, Dayton's RPI rank had topped out at 13. In Gregory's first year, he did guide the Flyers to an NCAA Tournament berth, but the RPI rank slipped to 40. Last year, it fell all the way to 125. Is this fall the beginning of a trend, or did Purnell get out at the right time because he knew the recruiting cupboard wasn't stocked?

Regardless, the DePaul-Dayton game this year will have pomp and circumstance associated with it, if for no other reason than the Gregory/DePaul angle is too easy to pass up. At the end of the day, though, while every non-conference game and win is important, Dayton is just one more game on the list, not necessarily one that deserves the build-up it will likely get.

Opponent: at Wake Forest (12/13)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Danny Ocean

Danny Ocean was the clear leader of the group that went to steal Terry Benedict's money. He was smooth. He exuded confidence. He was class personified. And he had an extremely hot ex-wife who got back together with him at the end of the movie. Basically, he was what all the other thieves in the group aspired to be.

And so is Wake Forest. While this year may be a slightly down year (for them) after losing Chris Paul to early-entry into the NBA draft, plus quite a few seniors, they're still an ACC team, which makes them dangerous. Leading scorer and rebounder Eric Williams (16.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) is returning for his senior season and will be the clear leader of this squad, which will have numerous freshmen. You know their RPI rank will be solid at the end of the season. Should DePaul be able to go into Winston-Salem and knock off the Demon Deacons, it could be the shiniest win of the season – just like the Benedict heist was the highlight of Danny's career.

Opponent: at Old Dominion (12/17)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Rusty Ryan

If Danny Ocean was the CEO of the "Eleven", Rusty was clearly the Chief Operating Officer. Danny had the grand plan. Rusty made sure it was executed. Rusty assumed leadership of the group while Danny was being black-flagged from the casino and busily being caught by Terry Benedict's goons. When Danny had his emotional moments with Tess, his ex-wife, it was Rusty that steered Danny back on course as to the main premise of the mission. Rusty was steady throughout the movie.

As DePaul made its attempt to qualify for last year's NCAA Tournament, one shining non-conference star always stood out: Old Dominion. They stayed in the RPI Top 50 for the duration of the season. When all was said and done, they were DePaul's second-best RPI win (after the home win versus Cincinnati). And there's no reason to think they won't continue to assert their dominance over the Colonial Athletic Association (15-3 in 2004-2005) this year, as they return forward/center Alex Loughton and solid guard play from Isaiah Hunter and Drew Williamson (who posted a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season). The game is in Virginia, where Old Dominion lost only once last year. An experienced squad on their home floor is likely to play a very steady game – as steady as Rusty was in guiding the group to success.

Opponent: at Cal (12/21)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Reuben Tishkoff

Reuben has a chip on his shoulder. Terry Benedict is blowing up one of his casinos and essentially trying to drive Ruben out of business in the Las Vegas scene. Benedict is kicking him while he's down. Reuben has a proud legacy. You see in the initial scheming session that he has an expansive house and has been on the covers of numerous national magazines. While his role is generally left to being the financier of the operation, you can tell that Reuben has just as much fire as anyone in extracting revenge on Benedict.

Cal basketball also has a chip on its shoulder. They've finished 13-16 and 13-15 in their last two seasons in a top-heavy Pac-10. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Cal made regular appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and they're hungry to get back to that level of consistency. While they may seem to be just another opponent on DePaul's difficult non-conference schedule, they will have as much fire as anyone to rise up again from some down years and cause problems for their opponents.

Opponent: Florida International (12/31)
"Ocean's Eleven" Character: Livingston Dell

Of the "Eleven", Livingston did the least during the movie (in my opinion). His redeeming skill was electronics. Otherwise, he was also a bumbling fool. In one scene, he gets wrapped up in a dog leash while he's walking down the street. In his biggest scene, after he successfully finds the wires that allow him to tap into the security camera feeds, he gets lost on the way out and almost screws up the mission. Then, when he's confronted by a security guard, he stammers and sweats his way through the conversation. It's the guard's obliviousness rather than Livingston's aplomb that gets him through the situation. After that escapade, Danny relegates Livingston to watching TV and reporting anything that looks funny.

Florida International does have a redeeming quality: they are a breather before the conference season starts for DePaul. Beyond that, though, they don't provide much scheduling upside for the Demons. They were a 12-17, 4-10 team in the Sun Belt Conference, finishing in last place in their division, and with Denver, Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock in the conference, the odds of making a big move up this year are remote. Should DePaul lose to the Golden Panthers, they deserve whatever retribution Terry Benedict took on the security guard who let Livingston get away.

Here's hoping that DePaul captures all 11 of them.

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