Wainwright's Challenge is to Blend Teams

Adam Rittenberg is back with his third annual DePaul Men's Basketball Season Preview story for WeAreDePaul.com. In this report we get Blue Demons coach Jerry Wainwright's outlook on the coming season.

Jerry Wainwright isn't the type to ask DePaul to double his salary, but in many ways he will be coaching two separate teams this season.

After an enigmatic 2006-07 season in which DePaul fell short of the NCAA tournament but played its best basketball down the stretch, Wainwright is left with two distinct personnel groups for his third go-round in Lincoln Park.

There are the holdovers, led by senior guard Draelon Burns, who could provide leadership to a team lacking it since Drake Diener graduated. Also back are two-year starters Karron Clarke and Jabari Currie, veteran reserve Cliff Clinkscales and DePaul's most intriguing/frustrating player, senior center Wesley Green.

But the departures of NBA draftees Wilson Chandler and Sammy Mejia, as well as invaluable forward Marcus Heard, leave DePaul without its top two scorers and its top three rebounders. Only Burns (11.6 ppg) and Currie (team-high 101 assists) accounted for significant chunks of the team's production last season.

It doesn't take a hoops Einstein to realize DePaul will need ample production from its incoming recruits to sniff the tournament in 2008. Fortunately for the Demons, they have six new faces to share the load.

DePaul brings in its most celebrated recruiting class since 1998, when Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams entered college. Headlined by two top-60 prospects in center Mac Koshwal (No. 28 in Scout.com's final rankings) and shooting guard Darquavis Tucker (No. 52 in Scout.com's Class of 2007), the class addresses several long-standing needs, namely interior scoring, 3-point shooting and point guard leadership.

Koshwal and Tucker are likely to start, and junior-college transfer Matija Poscic should receive significant minutes in a thin middle. Sharp-shooting wing Mario Stula also figures to see the court for a team that ranked eighth in the Big East in 3-point shooting (34.5 percent) last year.

Wainwright's challenge is simple. Blend the two groups, or endure another underwhelming season.

"You've got returning kids and new kids," Wainwright said. "Your team's split in half. Now how do they mesh? That will determine our season. Because if it's us against them, it's not going to work."

Wainwright is taking a different approach after several debatable decisions led to a slow start in 2006-07.

DePaul stressed conditioning this spring after backing off last year. Rising sophomores Will Walker and Thijin Moses were especially impressive in conditioning, Wainwright said.

The non-conference schedule, a point of contention throughout last season, will open with three or four home games before tough road games against Creighton and Kansas. DePaul also will start later after playing its first game of last season on Nov. 11.

"I made mistakes last year, and we couldn't avoid them," Wainwright said. "Our early season schedule last year in terms of timing and everything else, threw our team off until December. We're trying to schedule games a little bit later. I learned a lesson last year in terms of how we approach a season."

It seemed fitting that Burns took the final shot of the 2006-07 campaign, a dead-on 3-pointer that sailed a biscuit long against Air Force, giving DePaul a 2-point loss in the NIT quarterfinals. As the season wore on, Burns supplanted Chandler and Mejia as DePaul's go-to scorer, a title he will hold again this season.

The 6-foot-4 sparkplug averaged a team-high 13 points in Big East games, scoring 15 points or more six times. For a program lacking leadership, Burns seems well suited to take the reigns. This season, Wainwright wants to run a more up-tempo offense, a system well suited to Burns.

"He's as good a scorer as there will be returning in the Big East," Wainwright said. "He's a great piece to build around."

Big things are expected from Burns, but DePaul's season likely hinges on several other returning players, namely Clarke, Green and Walker. All three struggled for most of last season, though each man showed snippets of their potential.

Clarke seemed primed for an all-conference season after averaging 10 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore. But he often looked timid last season, taking more than five shots in only five of 17 league games. Despite a sculpted physique, Clarke rarely tiptoed into the lane, and his rebounding suffered.

With a major drop-off in rebounds, particularly on the defensive end, DePaul needs Clarke to bounce back.

"Karron's got to do some of the dirty work," Wainwright said. "Sometimes guys get hung up too much on, ‘OK, if I make threes, I'm a small forward.' You know what? You're 6-6, you're 210 pounds, you're one of the strongest guys on the team, one of the best athletes in the league. You've got to mix it up now."

"He should be a guy who's a Wilson Chandler. He's a guy who can guard a wing, should be able to post up. For us to be good, Karron's got to be good in the lane."

Walker started 13 games last season, but he looked overmatched in Big East play and saw both his playing time (9.8 minutes a game) and his production (1.3 points a game) plummet.

A one-sided matchup with Notre Dame freshman guard Tory Jackson in South Bend encapsulated how much development Walker still needed. Jackson beat Walker on three consecutive plays before Walker was yanked.

Not surprisingly, Wainwright has made defense the top priority for the 6-foot sophomore.

"Everybody looked at it, ‘He's not shooting, he's not shooting,'" Wainwright said. "That didn't really bother me. I didn't think he'd score much. But he needed to get better with the ball and be able to guard the ball."

"With about three weeks to go maybe, all of a sudden he picked up everything in practice. He said, ‘You know what? I'm going to show you that I belong.' He's been unbelievable in the offseason. He gritted his teeth and I think he's fighting back."

Green also showed some fight as the season progressed, posting his first career double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) against Hofstra in the NIT. He made it through a season injury-free for the first time, but conditioning remains a concern for the 6-9, 295-pound senior.

"I will contend until I'm done in coaching, he's as talented a big player as I've ever been around," Wainwright said. "When you look at his career and all the things that could have been and should have been and everything else, it's been the proverbial road full of potholes. OK, so?"

"You've got to this point in time, your grades are good, you're strong. If he does not approach next season saying, ‘You know what? I'm going to kick everybody's butt. I'm going to be a starter,' then he won't be anything."

Currie should see more time off the ball as Wainwright hopes to accentuate his skills as a scorer. Clinkscales is a "reliable sparkplug" who should see decent minutes at point guard, particularly late in games.

After yearning for a low-post presence for two years, Wainwright feels he has found one in Koshwal, who can play center or power forward. Big and extremely active, Koshwal can draw double teams and free up lanes for slashers like Burns and Tucker.

"Mac is a star in waiting," Wainwright said. "He's got mobility, size, he passes and shoots. He's an incredible worker."

The same description applies to Tucker, who plays bigger than his 6-5 frame and can fill in at several positions. Tucker should complement Burns on the wing and fill some of the scoring gap left by Mejia.

"He's the consummate junkyard dog," Wainwright said. "He'll do whatever you ask him to do. He'll get on the glass, he'll be the energy guy. He just finds a way to get himself buckets."

As for the other newcomers, Poscic brings two years of college experience, size and tremendous speed, allowing him to play and defend several positions. The 6-7 Stula is a tough matchup on the wing, and Mike Bizoukas could be an invaluable player at the long-suspect point guard position.

DePaul's final addition, 7-foot-2 center Kene Obi, is a project who adds depth to the post.

Wainwright lists team defense, rebounding and transition offense as the team's chief areas of focus. But without better on-court leadership, DePaul will falter.

"I've spent two years getting comfortable with the kids, and we've established some really good relationships," Wainwright said. "I'm going to demand leadership this year. I'm not asking for it anymore. We've lost games and put ourselves in bad situations because we don't communicate the way you need to on the court."

"We need more directed leadership on the court, in practice, in the locker room, in the dorm, without question. That is the next big step for us."

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