Cain and Gazi find their place

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Freshman guard Eli Cain has been a starter for most of the season.  (Geoff Stellfox / The DePaulia)

Freshman guard Eli Cain has been a starter for most of the season. (Geoff Stellfox / The DePaulia)

Even after the upset of No.11 Providence this Tuesday, DePaul’s men’s basketball team’s season is stuck in the mud with a 2-9 conference record. DePaul preaches staying in the moment, but the moment includes a look into two players leading the future of the program.

Head coach Dave Leitao’s prospects of winning this year were always dubious. The rise of young talent like Eli Cain and Erten Gazi signal a bright future for a program in desperate need.

“He’s been a rock, which is not something you associate with a freshman,” Leitao said on Cain’s behalf. “He’s growing exponentially within our program.”

As only a freshman, Eli Cain has made himself a starter. In 10 conference games, Cain is third on the team in minutes, netting eight points per game.

Cain’s success cannot be pinpointed to one aspect of preparation or coaching, although consistently being one of the last players in the gym doesn’t hurt. Neither does playing amateur basketball for AAU alongside Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe. The New Jersey product believes a lot of his ability comes from his positional versatility and moxie.

“One of the biggest things is that I’m real different” Cain said. “I can play three, even four positions at times.”

“I have a lot of confidence in myself.”

Confidence in Cain is a mutual feeling among the Blue Demons coaching staff. At just the age of 20, Cain is already DePaul’s preferred lockdown defender. He’s been tasked with guarding national talents such as Kellen Dunham, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and most recently, Kris Dunn in the win over Providence. He’s also guarding positions all over the court.

“If there’s gonna be a guy that I want to make sure he’s not scoring, I make sure Eli’s gonna guard them,” Leitao said. “That speaks volumes for where he’s at right now.”

It hasn’t been all sunshine and lockdown defense for Cain, the pace of the game has been causing him to commit fouls and force turnovers.

“Certain passes you could throw in high school where you thread the needle, here it’s turnovers” Cain said. “Everything is faster.”

Although he’s not at the level of Eli Cain yet, Cyprus product Erten Gazi is also a contributing underclassmen. The transition to the Big East hasn’t been as easy for Gazi as it has been for Cain.

“Here in the U.S. we have more athletic guys,” Gazi said. “Everyone has to be able to guard 1-on-1.”

Under Leitao, defense is the most crucial part of the game. As long as Gazi is still adapting to the pace of the Big East game, he won’t see big minutes in big games.

Offensively, Gazi started the year tremendously confident. Through the first eight games, Gazi was shooting nearly 50 percent (12-for-26). Conference play hasn’t been as friendly to Gazi, as he averages less that a point per game. Although, flashes of Gazi’s talent still show up in practice and in games that are already out of hand.

Gazi said he is ready to elevate his game next year.

“I believe next year is going to be absolutely better than this year,” Gazi said. “It’s going to be easier for us to play what the coach wants from us.”

If Gazi continues to develop like Cain already has, the influx of recruits like Devin Gage, Brandon Cyrus and Al Eichelberger could yield the young nucleus Leitao needs.