Commentary: DePaul women’s basketball in good shape for future

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In nearly every basketball game, there is a fun mini-game in between timeouts that takes place where two contestants picked from the crowd have to run up and down the court while putting on much bigger basketball attire. The first to put on all the clothes and then make a basket is proclaimed the winner.

On a Saturday night in Lincoln, Neb., this game took place with two kids as the contestants. One was a taller boy around 5-foot-6 in a Peyton Manning jersey, who was probably between the ages of 12 and 14. The second contestant was much smaller, under 5-feet, and closer to 7 or 8 years old.

At first it seemed like a mismatch. How could the smaller kid compete with a teenager who has an eight-inch height advantage?

It was a mismatch. The 8-year-old boy used his superior speed to zip down the floor and easily made the layup on his first try, much to everyone’s surprise.

For DePaul women’s basketball, this season was that mini-game. As a smaller team, DePaul used their speed to outwork opponents on the defensive and offensive ends. The Blue Demons ranked third in the nation in scoring with an average of 84 points per game and second in steals with 11.7.

More than anything, it was refreshing to see a team utilize its strengths and surpass expectations going into the season. The Blue Demons made their second Sweet Sixteen NCAA tournament appearance in four years despite being primarily an undersized team. They also won their first conference tournament since 1993 and had the best regular season title in the Big East.

Yet for all those accomplishments, DePaul hit a wall at the end of the season. Not only did Texas A&M have the size to counteract DePaul’s offense, they also had the athleticism to match up. The Aggies came away with a lopsided 85-64 victory and the Blue Demons’ season was suddenly over.

Fortunately, this team has all the right makings for another successful run next season.

“I’m excited about the young women we have coming back and the recruiting class we have coming in,” DePaul head coach Doug Bruno said. “I’m excited about the prospects for next year, but what you’ve really got to grasp here is that there’s no promises in our world that we’re blessed to live in.”

Three players – Kelsey Reynolds, Kelsey Smith and Jasmine Penny – are graduating after this year. Of that group, Penny is the biggest loss, quite literally as she was DePaul’s starting center at 6-foot-1. Her talent is also hard to replace as she led DePaul in field goal percentage, making 57 percent of her shots and scoring 15.8 points per game.

With those three players departing, DePaul still has nine players – including four starters – returning next year. The Blue Demons were a threat on offense thanks to guards Chanise Jenkins and Brittany Hrynko being able to find open shooters on the wing, namely forwards Megan Rogowski and Megan Podkowa. That high-octane offense remains intact.

What’s most promising about this group of players is their ability to grow. Bruno often points out that DePaul started the season 4-3 before going on multiple win streaks to propel themselves to a 29-8 record.

Even if DePaul-Texas A&M wasn’t particularly close, it doesn’t change the fact that this season was a learning experience for all involved.

“This year was huge for us,” Hrynko said. “It showed what we can accomplish and what it takes to get there. Chanise and I wanting to be leaders was huge for us this year.”

Jenkins added that DePaul’s experiences should carry well for next year.

“It really showed how much we have to grow into our role,” Jenkins said. “We have to carry the team on our backs next year and work on to continue our chemistry.”

Perhaps Bruno’s best quality is that he gets his players to develop in the four years they are here. Podkowa, a sophomore, made a significant leap in year two, developing a post-game to go along with her 3-point range. Podkowa flashed many moves that Penny gracefully used in the past. If Podkowa can continue to improve with those moves for next year, she has the potential to be as efficient of a scorer as Penny.

There are also bench players who should develop further in 2014. Freshman Jessica January played a key role as DePaul’s sixth man, yet was inconsistent in her ability to score. She would exert too much energy at times, trying to draw contact on a shot while ending up missing instead.

Brandi Harvey-Carr, a redshirt freshman, is DePaul’s tallest player at 6-foot-4, but struggled in converting baskets under the rim. She shot just 39 percent this season and often found herself in foul trouble. She showed promise in spots and DePaul needs her to be a threat with her size.

Bruno said other players who didn’t get much playing time this season could develop into meaningful role players too. He pointed to freshman ShaKeya Graves and Brooke Schulte specifically.

The incoming freshmen Bruno recruited should also cover some of DePaul’s significant weaknesses. As productive as DePaul was at getting steals, the team’s actual defense left a lot to be desired. The Blue Demons were 264th in the nation in scoring defense, letting up 71.2 points per game. They also had the 325th worst field goal percentage defense, allowing 44.6 percent of shots made.

A lot of that porous defense had to do with size. Teams took advantage of DePaul on the boards and were able to get to the paint with ease. In the Sweet Sixteen game, Texas A&M guard Courtney Walker repeatedly beat DePaul’s smaller guards off the dribble. Likewise, similar players like Oklahoma forward Aaryn Ellenberg and St. John’s forward Aliyyah Handford have also given DePaul problems.

Luckily, DePaul has size coming. Elri Liebenberg is a 6-foot-8 center from South Africa who has committed to DePaul. She averaged 22 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks per game in the Royal Bafokeng Basketball Program. Liebenberg still has to develop, but Bruno has described her as “a diamond in the rough.”

Marte Grays, ranked No. 85 on ESPN W’s Top 100 recruits for 2014, is a 6-foot-3 forward who possesses the long, athletic type DePaul has needed. She is athletic enough to fit in Bruno’s system and has the length on defense to lock up the paint.

“It’s always about getting better,” Bruno said. “We have a great group of experienced players coming back in the backcourt. (Grays) has a chance to step in and play. Until they come back, I don’t know if we’re going to play big or small again.”

What best suits DePaul’s chances going forward, however, is that they have now been there before. Just getting to the Sweet Sixteen does so much for a club that the team knows what it takes to get there.

“No matter how many times we’ve been to the tournament, you can’t take it for granted that we’re going to get in,” Bruno said. “We’ve done a lot here as a program and we’ve done a lot this year.

“We still have to understand that when we get to this point, we have to be ready to grasp it,” he said. “We can’t just assume we’ll get it done next year because Macarthur’s Park cake is melting in the rain. That’s what coaching is all about.”

Maybe the Blue Demons can have their cake and eat it too.