Familiarity. What Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as the quality or state of being familiar. A state of close relationship. It's also the word DePaul men's basketball head coach Jerry Wainwright accurately portrayed his 2006-07 Demons squad as having a ton of at Big East Media Day last Wednesday.
What is different about this year's team? "Well I think it's the word familiarity," Wainwright expressed. "Same kids by and large, we had one kid transfer (Rashad Woods) and one graduate (Marlon Brumfield). So it's the same group. We spend a lot of time together. I think (of) familiarity with not only the system, but personalities, with (what) expectations are and everything else. I think we have gotten a lot closer. There's a lot to be said for that. And I think it shows in our practices right now," Wainwright said confidently.
A lot of pundits are pointing to another renaissance at DePaul with a lot of talent returning (94% returning on offense and 86% of their rebounding) from a team that found its niche towards the end of season. With strong evidence being the 39 point whooping the Demons layed on Syracuse, who turned out to be the Big East Tournament champs. With a lot of talent coming back and confidence being high, Wainwright doesn't hold back on what his expectations are.
"Our expectation is to make the NCAA's. There is no other (expectation). Irregardless of what are schedule (is) or anything else, that has to be the goal of every college program at our level. So were not at all shying from that."
Two of the players Wainwright is leaning on this year are senior Sammy Mejia and sophomore Wilson Chandler. Mejia is the team's returning leading scorer (and second in the Big East) with a 15.1 average and one who will be looked upon for leadership. Mejia, although a senior, is one player who continues to amaze Wainwright. When asked who is the most improved Demon, Wainwright didn't hesitate to point out Mejia. "Without question, Sam Mejia. I think he's improved from a personality and leadership perspective."
Although Mejia is the senior leader, Wainwright couldn't help but gush about sophomore standout Wilson Chandler. "He's an incredible talent and he's a great team guy. But he has to maintain a level of maturity off the court that doesn't hurt his teammates," Wainwright explained. Chandler has a world of talent. Chandler is coming off a season in which he averaged 10.6 ppg and 7.2 rpg, but also a season in which he served some suspensions off the court. However, Wainwright believes Chandler has done some growing up. "You know the lessons he learned are not only tough, but they are embarrassing."
Wainwright also loves his junior class, specifically 6-6 wing Karron Clarke and 6-4 guard Draelon Burns. In fact, when asked about team captains, Wainwright was inclined to name Clarke and Burns above anyone else. "Karron will be one of them (captains), and Draelon. I don't know if I'm going to put in on Sam to tell you the truth. I think I'll have him lead by example. Put captain in front of him, suddenly he's thinks in the Starship Enterprise," Wainwright joked.
While Mejia has improved his leadership off the court, Wainwright is most impressed with the improvement of Burns on the court. "Physically, probably the guy that's improved the most in terms of his game is Draelon Burns. He is much better with the ball. He has gotten stronger. And his game is becoming more complete. You know he's a scorer, still is. (There's) Not a shot he doesn't like. You know him. No conscience and he was born without a conscience."
With Mejia, Clarke, and Burns in the backcourt, it's the perimeter game that has Wainwright excited. "Well I think that's (perimeter play) our strength. And I think it improves every day because the kids are the best workers. You know Karron, Draelon, Jabari (Currie), those kids work their tail off. I think the biggest thing is their ability to play together. That has really helped."
On the flipside, the frontcourt is a little thin on talent but thick on experience and Wainwright is hoping to get maximum effort out of this gang. "Well we got to get minutes out of Marcus (Heard) and Lorenzo (Thompson), somehow, someway. Fouls, minutes and rebounds."
At the center position, Wainwright will look to junior Wesley Green for production. "I wish I could expect what he did against Wake Forest (last season). If he can get to that level, we'd be pretty good. But he obviously played that way (once) you would hope he would regain the ability to do that."
Wainwright also went on to say that Green has worked hard to overcome many obstacles.
"He's lost a lot of weight and he's in the 280's and he's bench pressed 420. I think he's stronger. In all honesty, he's got to cut loose. So many bad things have happened to him. Sometimes you walk around waiting for the next one. Conditioning is the difference between him being a really good one."
Also of note has been the absence of Keith Butler, a 7-1 transfer from Temple who is out on academic suspension, and his effect if he can return. Wainwright said Butler can come back. "(The things he has to do to come back) are doable and we'll see if he's going to follow through on those things. He's certainly an experienced guy. He's got a lot of games under his belt under a great coach, coach (John) Chaney. You know kids make mistakes and they got to recover from them and if he does we'll see where he's at. He's certainly not going to be part of our team for awhile."
With that being said, the team will have a more perimeter look to the squad. And only further cementing that theme will be the additions of two gifted freshmen, 6-0 guard Will Walker (Bolingbrook High) and 6-8 forward Thijin Moses (Chicago, IL out of Boys To Men Academy). Wainwright had plenty of high praise for the frosh after their time at practice. "I would say our two freshmen have held up better than I thought. They've really done a pretty good job. Both kids have really shot the ball well. And I think they've earned the respect of the older guys, which is critical for us. We're excited about them. I'm not going to ask a lot out of them. But I think their minutes will really become key as the year wears on."
Wainwright was coy with who will start and who will get minutes in his system. According to Wainwright it will all depend on matchups. "I think it will depend on who we are playing," Wainwright explained on who would start. "I think there was kind of a format set. I think it's true in college basketball and evolving in pro basketball. That you want guys on the floor that can dribble, pass, and shoot. And where I've asked guys like Karron and Draelon to improve is in ball handling. So I think we'll be a team where you have multiple ball handlers. Now, who gets the ball for the big shot? That's to be determined. Again I think it's on matchups. Who's your go-to-guy? Our best big player is obviously Wilson Chandler. Our most experienced guard is obviously Sammy. Those guys need touches. But we have very balanced scoring and I think on any given night we have to go to the guy who's got the best matchup."
The season is just around the corner and expect more of the same in terms of scheduling. Wainwright has shown he is fearless in terms of lining up his non-conference schedule.
"It's another death march, but I think our kids are ready," Wainwright confessed. "I think there's two reasons (for a tough schedule). First of all, you have a lot of choices when you are in Chicago. If I want people to come to games, I don't think I'm going to fool them. So I try to take an aggressive approach to bringing fans to our arena. Number two, I think those are the kinds of games our guys want to play, need to play right now. And number three there is no question it's helped in a positive way to affect our recruiting. If we are trying to recruit top 25 and top 50 players, you don't trick them. I don't want anybody who is afraid of success, so you better not be afraid yourself. You know look at our start, probably no other team at our level starts two in a row at Bradley, at Northwestern before we go to Maui. Now if we implode because of that? I don't know, maybe? I don't look at that way. I'd like to think if we stay healthy we'll grow from that."
With a tough schedule in tow and another competitive turn in the Big East, DePaul should be better prepared for year two under Wainwright and make that leap to the NCAA tournament if for no other reason than familiarity.
Big East Media Day with Jerry Wainwright
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