It’s Time to Take DePaul Basketball Seriously

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When people think of DePaul basketball, there are two subsets of people who have mostly differing viewpoints.

For people over 40-year’s old, they remember a time when DePaul was a national power in the late-1970s to the early 1990s. This is when the DePaul basketball program was routinely in the top-10 and an annual participant in the NCAA Tournament.

They remember the legendary coach Ray Meyer, and his son, Joey, who did an admirable job in replacing him. They remember the 1979 Final Four, the same one that gave us the historic Magic Johnson (of Michigan State) and Larry Bird (of Indiana State) duel. These are the same fans who know the names George Mikan, Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings and Rod Strickland—all players who captivated the nation when they played at DePaul.

Then are the fans under the age of 40 who only know DePaul basketball for being a bottom feeder. They only know DePaul for finishing in last place in the Big East. DePaul has had just one winning season (last season) in the previous 11 years.

This group only knows DePaul to be a laughingstock. So, this viewpoint is more than warranted.

Why DePaul Basketball Should be Taken Seriously

After DePaul won at Minnesota last Friday—and having now beaten three Power-5 conference teams on the road (also beating Iowa and Boston College)—these two subset groups are converging. Now, everybody has to take this program a little more seriously.

The Blue Demons are now a perfect 8-0 on the season. The DePaul basketball program is one of only 20 unbeaten teams left on the season. DePaul now gets set for another big challenge when it hosts last year’s national runners up Texas Tech on Wednesday.

When DePaul basketball coach Dave Leitao came back for another go-round—he previously coached the Blue Demons from 2002-05—he sure had his work cut out for him. His predecessor, Oliver Purnell, only amassed a 54-105 record (an astonishingly 15-75 record in Big East play) with his teams finishing last three times in his five years in Chicago.

It took a while for Leitao to build a foundation and turn the culture around.

For a while, many believed he was not the man to turn it around and be successful. This was a different job than what he inherited nearly 17 years earlier. His first three years on the job were inarguably bad, as he compiled just a 39-65 record (9-45 record in conference play).

It All Started with Last Season’s Progress

Last year there were finally tangible signs that Leitao was pushing the DePaul basketball program back towards respectability.

By last year DePaul had some talented players in Max Strus (now with the Chicago Bulls), Eli Cain, Femi Olujobi, and former 4-star guard and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands. Not to mention Leitao seemed to strike gold in recruiting a raw 3-star recruit out of Orlando, Florida in Paul Reed.

Reed, who was last season’s Big East Most Improved Player of the Year, is now one of the best players in not only the Big East but the entire country. More on him later.

This upgrade in talent allowed the Blue Demons to finish with a regular-season record of 15-15. Of those 15 wins, seven came in conference play. That was the most conference wins DePaul has had in the Big East since the 2006-07 season in which DePaul made the quarterfinals of the NIT.

DePaul would accept a bid to the CBI and advanced to the finals before losing in a best-of-three series to South Florida. The Blue Demons ultimately ended their season with a 19-17 record, which was their best season since that same 2006-07 team.

The experience of playing in a post-season tournament and having built up additional chemistry was the positive momentum the program desperately needed.

In the offseason, Leitao also added more key players. Leitao secured a top-35 recruiting class (highlighted by 4-star combo forward Romeo Weems and 4-star guard Markese Jacobs). Leitao also welcomed in major transfers in Charlie Moore (Kansas) and Darious Hall (Arkansas).

When you add it up, this is just a different team and program. These ain’t your father’s Blue Demons anymore.

How DePaul is 8-0

The Blue Demons are getting it done with defense and with a balanced offensive approach.  All five starters nearly average double figures in scoring.

DePaul ranks 15th in the country in field-goal defense, allowing opposing teams to shoot just 35.6 percent from the field. The Blue Demons are tied for 14th with Duke in blocks per game with 6.3 per game. They rank tied for 44th in the nation in steals, with 9.1 per game.

The Blue Demons also crash the boards at a high level. They rank tied for 32nd in defensive rebounding with 29.6 rebounds per game. DePaul also ranks 49th in the nation in rebound margin (+ 8).

So how did DePaul get here? Well, every player has a defined role and each is excelling at it.

Breaking Down DePaul Basketball’s Major Players

Moore is the engine that makes the Blue Demons hum along. He has that “it” factor from the point guard spot that the program has been lacking for almost three decades. He is cool as a cucumber with the ball in his hands. Moore is as clutch as they come.

After struggling at Kansas to adapt to a new role off the bench after transferring in from Cal, Moore has felt rejuvenated by coming home, as he is a native of Chicago.

He leads the team in scoring with 17.1 points per game and 6.6 assists per game (tops in the Big East and tied for 15th in the nation). When DePaul needs a big play, Moore always delivers by either hook or crook.

Coleman-Lands is now starting to settle into his role as a sharp-shooting wing. His debut as a Blue Demon hit a snag after nine games last year. He broke his hand in a game against Illinois-Chicago and missed the rest of the season.

And after shaking more rust early on—he missed seven of his first nine three-point attempts—he has now connected on 15 of his last 37 three-point attempts. He is doing his part and averages 9.4 points per game.

Up front, the Demons have an athletic, rangy and lengthy frontcourt that causes havoc on both offense and defense.

Now, back to Reed.

He is just special. Reed just keeps on getting better and better.

The versatile big man averages 15.3 points, 10.4 rebounds (tops in the Big East and 20th in the nation) and 3.5 blocks per game (again, tops in the conference and 7th in the country). He is also shooting a healthy 61.2 percent from the floor and 42.9 from three-point range (6-14). Reed now has six double-doubles, which is tied for the most in the nation.

“I can improve a lot,” Reed told Last Word on Basketball at Big East media day when asked how much more he can improve. “I can add to my three-point shooting, (improve) my ball-handling skills, taking the ball up the court and add to my rebounding too.”

That he has done and a result, he is ascending up some NBA draft boards. Reed could work his way into first-round consideration if he keeps this trajectory. Expect him to be an all-Big East first team member at the end of the year.

The Blue Demons also employ the ultimate bruiser and bodyguard down low in center Jaylen Butz. Butz is your typical garbage-man and a workman-like big man who does all the dirty work while cleaning up messes. He can run the floor with ease and is a highly efficient player.

He is averaging a steady 10.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting a sizzling 63.8 percent from the field, which ranks in the top-50 in the NCAA. Butz plays his role to a T and never tries to do more than what is asked of him.

Rounding out the starting five is Weems.

Weems is your jack-of-all-trades player. His defense is way ahead of his offense at this point. If Weems was a baseball player, we would describe him as a five-tool guy. He can score from all levels, defend and distribute at a high level.

He is so versatile on the defensive end that Leitao assigns Weems to everyone’s biggest scoring threat. The 6’7” Weems is often assigned to opposing point guards. Wise above his years in basketball IQ, Weems is chipping in across the board with 9.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and1.6 steals per game. Weems is also shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range.

Off the bench, Leitao mostly turns to a three-man unit in Hall, junior guard Devin Gage (who has missed the last four games with an ankle injury) and Jacobs.

Gage (6.5 points and 2.3 assists per game) and Hall (4.9 points, 5.8 rebounds) are more known for their defensive acumen. However, both can score when given the chance. Both are quick and athletic and play best when in transition.

Meanwhile, Jacobs is still getting his game back after overcoming a partial ACL tear last winter in high school. He is not as explosive as he was in high school when he was a top-100 player. He is still contributing and is averaging 6.1 points per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point territory.

DePaul’s Ceiling

Deciphering DePaul’s ceiling is still hard to gauge.

Winning three games on the road against Power-5 opponents is impressive but the Demons have yet to beat a ranked team. They need more signature wins and even beating a banged up Texas Tech squad could go along way.

DePaul has yet to crack the top-25 in either the AP or coaches poll. They still have more to prove and this bunch probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

We’ll certainly learn more about this team in Big East play.

Contending for a Big East championship may be a tad ambitious, but this team has the looks of an NCAA Tournament team. If the Demons were to make it, it would mark their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2004, when Leitao first roamed the sidelines for DePaul.

This is no mirage. DePaul is good.

It’s time we all admit it to ourselves and buy some stock in this team.

*All stats and records were of games played through December 1

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