It seems like as soon as you say, "This team is awful," they begin to look like a juggernaut. However, as soon as you find them impressive, they start to look like inept stumblebums again. So, which is it? The answer is both, which goes quite a way toward explaining their conference record of 5-6.
Coach Jerry Wainwright's charges were on top of their game when they defeated Villanova in Philadelphia. They looked even better when they dominated Kansas in the Windy City. Yet this team has lost six conference games so far.
One of the reasons the team has been inconsistent is that some individual players have fallen short of expectations. That's true for practically any team, but it seems to be even more valid for DePaul.
Wilson Chandler was supposed to be a star in the making. And, at times, he's met those expectations. The 6'8" sophomore power forward has had four double-doubles in league play, including 25 points and 12 rebounds last week against Notre Dame. However, he's also had five games with 11 points or fewer, including four points and four rebounds against Rutgers. In back-to-back games against Georgetown and West Virginia, he combined for only 21 points and a paltry four rebounds. In conference games, he's averaging 13.7 ppg, which is respectable, but not quite the level of productivity most expected of him. In general, he's not shooting well – only 40.9% overall and a terrible 21.2% from behind the arc. Which Wilson Chandler will show up Wednesday night? It could be either one.
While many DePaul fans might consider Chandler's performance in conference games mildly disappointing to date, most fans would probably express both shock and disappointment at the level of productivity, or relative lack thereof, of senior wing Sammy Mejia. Considered one of the top players in the league prior to the season, as well as a pre-season all-conference selection, the 6'6" Mejia has had his moments, particularly a 40-point effort in the final non-conference game (against Northwestern State). He also had 23 points in the win at Villanova. Other than that, though, his offensive productivity has been meager. He's had five single-digit scoring games, along with three others when he scored 10 points, in 11 league contests. It's doubtful any Blue Demon fan expected the lone returning senior starter to be averaging 9.5 ppg nearly three fourths of the way through the Big East season. Nor would they have anticipated his shooting only 37.3% from the field.
This isn't to say that Mejia has not helped his team. He's still a solid defender, and he's averaging 5.8 rpg. Plus, he is still dangerous on the offensive end of the court. If his shots start dropping, he can get on a roll and take a game over. MU has to hope that he doesn't snap out of his shooting/scoring slump on Wednesday night.
The player who has taken up a good deal of the slack is off guard Draelon Burns. In fact, he's been so productive that Mejia now plays the 3 more than the 2, which means Karron Clarke's minutes have been trimmed. Burns is averaging 13.6 ppg. He recently had back-to-back games of 26 points each, against UConn and Syracuse, as well as a 20-point outing against Georgetown. He's shooting 49.1% from the field and a superb 47.6% on treys. McNeal will have his hands full on Wednesday as Burns is playing with tremendous confidence.
Jabari Currie has taken over the starting point guard spot the past four games. During that time he's averaged 29.0 mpg, but he hasn't been the answer for Wainwright any more than Cliff Clinkscales or Will Walker was. Currie is averaging only 3.3 ppg in those games, the same average he has for the 11-game conference season so far. He's also had five turnovers in three of those four games. Currie is shooting 56.0% from the field, though he's taking only 2.2 shots per game.
Karron Clarke averaged 30.0 mpg last season at the 3. That number is down to just under 20 mpg (19.8) for league play this year. A year ago, Clarke averaged 10.0 ppg; this year he's averaging 6.1 ppg in conference play. Still, Clarke is a dangerous outside shooter as he's hitting 39.1% of his three-pointers. MU can not afford to leave him open when he's in the game.
Point guard has not been the only area of concern for DePaul. Wainwright has taken the "committee" approach to the 5 as well. Marcus Heard and Keith Butler have gotten most of the minutes there, but who plays how much has varied from game to game. For the most part Wesley Green has been a non-factor, though he has displayed his considerable talent and skill on occasion.
On paper at least neither big man – Butler or Heard – should present anywhere near the kind of problems on either end of the floor that Hibbert did on Saturday or players like Herbert Hill, Watkins, Gray, or Gransberry did earlier in the season. Still, Heard is capable of knocking down mid-range shots, and Butler can be an intimidating presence on defense.
Clinkscales is the Demons' sparkplug coming off the bench. He's neither a scorer nor a shooter, but he is capable of instilling life in DePaul's offense as he showed when he had six assists in only 14 minutes against Notre Dame.
Overall, DePaul has been what might be called offensively challenged at times. It ranks 15th in the conference in scoring at 60.2 ppg. However, it also ranks third in scoring defense at 61.5 ppg, so this could be a low-scoring game.
The Demons are not a bad shooting team despite their low scoring average. Indeed, they rank seventh in field goal percentage (43.2%) two slots ahead of Marquette (42.6%). How can the apparent contradiction between scoring average and field goal percentage be explained? There are two answers: the Demons rank 15th in three-point percentage at 29.6%, and they are dead last in free throw percentage at 58.8%. It's difficult to score points with shooting percentages like those.
Any MU fan who is expecting an easy game should think again. First of all, it's an away game. Plus, De Paul has considerable talent as any of three players is capable of scoring 20+ points on any given night. The Demons are also athletic at all five positions.
Plus, as much criticism as critics often aim at Wainwright for his perceived slow, methodical, sometimes "plodding" offensive system, he has instilled in the program a renewed focus on defense, which allows the Demons to stay in most games. After giving up 15 points in the first five minutes against Notre Dame, the Demons held the high-scoring Irish to 51 points the rest of the way.
There are many keys to this game, too many to examine here. Suffice to say that MU must keep Chandler reasonably in check, hope Mejia continues to have difficulty scoring, and try to keep Burns from having a big game. De Paul and MU are probably fairly even on the boards, which is likely to hold true on Wednesday.
This is one of those games avid fans hate. It's a game you're expected to win, but the opponent is better than many think. This will be a close game, probably decided in the last three minutes of play. My guess is many, maybe even most, MU fans would take a one-point win and run with it. A second consecutive loss, even if they're both on the road, is no way to prepare for the conference tournament, and Coach Crean and his players are well aware of that.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is a frequent contributor for MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.