The provocative question of who would score the first basket at Wintrust Arena has finally been answered.
On the first possession of the DePaul Blue Demon’s dominating 121-65 exhibition victory against NAIA opponent Indiana University Northwest at Wintrust Arena on Sunday afternoon, junior forward Eli Cain dribbled hard down the left side of the court before feeding a hard-cutting Max Strus for an emphatic alley-oop.
“Nah, I actually threw the pass,” Cain said factiously when asked if he was bitter that Strus recorded the first basket at Wintrust Arena instead of him. “He needs to be thanking me for it.”
This play set the tone for a complete effort beat down courtesy of the Blue Demons. The DePaul players, who very vocally expressed their excitement during the offseason about finally getting to play in Wintrust Arena in a real game, jumped out to an early 19-5 lead by the 11:54 mark in the first half. A 19-2 run from about the ten-minute mark in the first half to the 5:12 mark allowed the Blue Demons to put away the IU-Northwest Redhawks early, rendering the remainder of the game mostly noncompetitive for all intents and purposes.
The Blue Demons led wire-to-wire extending the lead to 66 points in the second half, en route to a 56-point advantage over IU-Northwest in the first-ever meeting between the two teams. Although the RedHawks didn’t present a particularly imposing challenge for the Blue Demons on Sunday afternoon, head coach David Leitao still appreciated the opportunity to play against a real opponent ahead of the season opener against No. 14 ranked Notre Dame on Saturday.
“We’ve been practicing for about five weeks now, so it gives us an opportunity to play against somebody and figure out some different rotations and combinations and see how guys play under the lights and see what we can be,” Leitao said. “It’s very early, so it’s hard to make a determination as to how good we are going to be. We’ll continue to take it day by day. I think this is an opportunity after we’ve played the scrimmage and now an exhibition game to now understand what lies in front of us.”
Carrying over the defensive effort against IU-Northwest on Sunday afternoon to the rest of the season, would go a long way towards helping the Blue Demons pull off their first .500 or better showing in ten seasons.
The RedHawks shot 28 percent from the field (5.9 percent from 3-point land) and coughed the ball up 22 times which led to 28 Blue Demon points. DePaul’s size in the frontcourt; the Blue Demons have four players taller than the RedHawks tallest player who comes in at 6-foot-7-inches; made it difficult for the RedHawks to attack the rim without having their shots altered. This led to a plethora of air balls, wild shots, and shots that found only backboard.
“Not knowing a lot about them (in terms of) style of play and personnel, I think we just tried to concentrate, especially on the defensive end over the course of the season, (and that is to) play team defense,” said Leitao. “Make it a little bit difficult for them to drive on us or get easy baskets. Get back in transition because they shoot the ball well and early in possessions. I think overall we did a very admirable job. They shot 28 percent from the field and playing against anybody that’s a really good number.”
It was a refreshing change of script for a DePaul squad that surrendered 74.6 points per game to their opponents last season, which was good for 232nd-best in the country. The addition of athletic, lengthy defenders like Marin Maric, Jaylen Butz, and Paul Reed should help shore things up defensively. The Redhawks finished with 18 points in the paint on Sunday afternoon, and the shot disruption abilities of all three was a big reason why.
“We have good length at a lot of positions and if we play together and rotate and help each other and be aggressive it’ll pay dividends down the line,” Leitao said.
Offensively, the Blue Demons spread the scoring around. Seven DePaul players finished with double-digit points led by Strus who racked up 22 points on a dizzying combination of dunks, 3-point field goals, and drives to the basket.
“I’m just happy to be back out there,” said Strus who had to sit out last season per NCAA transfer rules. “Last year was a tough year just sitting out and knowing that I can’t do anything to help. But it felt good to be out there and actually be able to play basketball again.”
The Blue Demons first regular season game is Saturday against the No. 14 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Game time is 3 p.m. and Fox Sports 1 will broadcast. Despite Notre Dame’s ranking and the fact that this game is the season opener and at Wintrust Arena, Leitao made it clear that this isn’t a statement game.
“We have 30 something games and we’re looking for a win,” Leitao said. “We’re opening up this building and trying to make it a memorable day for our fanbase who are coming back to Chicago and understanding that we can create a love affair with this basketball team again. We’re going to win a game or not win a game based on how we play and I don’t know if that means statement.”