Doug Bruno takes pride in always opening the season with a challenging opponent. Last year, the women’s basketball head coach was preparing his team for a shot of revenge against Texas A&M, who ousted the Blue Demons in the Sweet Sixteen and were ranked No. 5 in the country.
This season, Bruno is preparing his team with a mentality they took on last March for the NCAA tournament: win-or-go home.
No. 22 DePaul opens its season Friday at home against Southern Illinois. But the game is also the start of the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
“You don’t usually get to play one-and-out basketball opening the season,” Bruno said. “That’s what’s beautiful about playing this WNIT season. It’s win or go home. To reach our goals of playing in the NCAA tournament in March, we’re going to have to play one-and-out basketball. This will be great preparation.”
This is the second time that DePaul has opened with the Preseason WNIT since the 2010. There is a winner and consolation bracket, so the Blue Demons are guaranteed four games regardless.
However, if the Blue Demons reach the championship round, they will most likely face No. 4 Butler, a strong early test against a team that has established itself as a powerhouse in women’s basketball.
[box]Read: 2015-16 DePaul basketball preview[/box]
But before that, they open the tournament Southern Illinois at 7 p.m. at McGrath-Phillips Arena.
“Southern Illinois won 17 games a year ago,” Bruno said. “They’ve got a really good ball club. They have everyone returning.”
Bruno’s Blue Demons are coming into the season ranked 22nd in the country and as the favorites to win their third consecutive Big East championship. In two exhibition games, the Blue Demons won 135-64 against St. Xavier and 87-67 against Lewis.
Bruno said the starting lineup he ran in those games — Chanise Jenkins, Jessica January, Brooke Schulte, Mart’e Grays and Megan Podkowa — will remain the same. Bruno flirted with the idea of starting sophomore Ashton Millender instead of Grays, but decided to go with Grays’ size.
“Millender is a starter in our mind’s eye,” Bruno said. “But I want to bring her off the bench because our guard play is a little bit short. We only have four guards.”
Unlike the last couple of years, Bruno said he’s missing the depth of guards that have overwhelmed opposing teams. The Blue Demons are tasked with replacing the production Brittany Hrynko, Megan Rogowski and Centrese McGee, three versatile players who all graduated. Hrynko and Rogowski, in particular, were guards who excelled at scoring.
The three’s departure is why Bruno said that the development of forward Brandi Harvey-Carr will be vital. Harvey-Carr, a junior, would allow Podkowa to slide over to a combo guard/forward role, which would increase the production of Bruno’s run-and-gun system.
The Blue Demons will also look to develop key contributors off the bench such as guard Lauren Prochaska, a sophomore who contributed in spurts as a freshman, and freshman guard Tanita Allen.
DePaul is coming off a season where they went 27-8, repeated as Big East champions and lost to Notre Dame in the Round of 32.
“We’re just really excited to play,” January said following Saturday’s exhibition game against Lewis. “Getting out (of the NCAA tournament) last spring was kind of hard mentally so getting able to play, we’re just really grateful we’re able to play.”
But heading into the first game, Bruno said he likes his players’ focus.
“I think we get it (in terms of mental preparation),” Bruno said. “I feel like we have a solid eight or nine players out of the box here.”