Inching closer? Men’s basketball shows progress with Providence win

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DePaul coach Dave Leitao talks to his team during the second half Tuesday against No. 11 Providence at Allstate Arena . DePaul won 77-70. (CHARLES REX ARBOGAST / AP)

DePaul coach Dave Leitao talks to his team during the second half Tuesday against No. 11 Providence at Allstate Arena . DePaul won 77-70. (CHARLES REX ARBOGAST / AP)

Billy Garrett admitted it was “kind of weird.” The DePaul guard watched as his teammates stormed the student section at Allstate Arena Tuesday to celebrate the Blue Demons’ best win of the season, a 77-70 upset over No. 11 Providence.

“Usually, you get everyone storming the court, but we went over there,” Garrett said. “We wanted to go over there to show them we appreciated them being there.”

DePaul will take what it can get.

During the Blue Demons’ first year under head coach Dave Leitao, there haven’t been many moments to celebrate, but it has been an odd mix of progress amid frustration in what has been largely another losing season.

For every step forward, like knocking off Providence, the Blue Demons can be expected to have a setback — and Saturday was no exception in an 88-66 blowout to Creighton. The Blue Demons’ fell to 8-15 (2-9 Big East).

So, just who are the Blue Demons under Leitao?

“It kind of speaks to the type of team we’ve been this year, which is really inconsistent,” Garrett said. “That’s something we’ve got to fix. We have eight more conference games left. We have to find some consistency in the way we go about our business. I think everything will be all right.”

Leitao said that among the group, there has been a positive attitude even in defeat. That attitude hasn’t always helped the Blue Demons in rebounding from the moment he took over for former head coach Oliver Purnell, Leitao stressed they needed to change the culture. Part of doing that, he said, is about building trust.

“Cohesiveness, particularly on defense, is always about trust,” Leitao said. “Guys in our locker room, and knowing who each other are and their strengths and weaknesses, is about trust. Those things, when you win games, no matter if it’s against a top 15 team or consecutive games, that’s when you build who you are.”

The formula for winning games, though, can be complicated. When Leitao had success at DePaul in his first stint from 2002 to 2004, he did it primarily with strong defending and rebounding teams.

This season, DePaul has become better in those areas.  DePaul’s defense lets up 72.9 points per game compared to 73.6 per game from last season under Purnell. At an adjusted defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, DePaul ranks 154th in the nation compared to 228 last season, according to the advanced statistic website KenPom.com.  And for the first time since the 2006-07 season, DePaul also has a positive rebounding margin at +1.9.

Yet, DePaul has taken a nosedive offensively.   They rank No. 178 in adjusted offense efficiency (103.1 points per 100 possessions against an average team) from 111 (104.8 points per 100 possessions against an average team) last season. In the pure number of points scored per game, last year’s squad averaged 69.4 to 68.7.

The real drop off, however, is in turnovers. The Blue Demons turn the ball over at a staggering 21.3 percent per 100 possessions to just 19.8 percent last season. At a 21.3 percent clip, that puts DePaul at No. 326 in the nation out of an eligible 351.

“(We) need to make better reads, making better decisions, not trying to force it too much” Garrett said. “That comes with being aggressive. We’ve just got to continue to play and hopefully make more good plays than bad ones.”

When DePaul has had success on offense, it’s largely due to Garrett and senior Myke Henry, the two top scorers on the Blue Demons. Coincidentally, those two are the only players on DePaul’s rosters that were thought of as top 100 players while as recruits.

Henry, in particular, has been stellar for the Blue Demons. He’s averaging 15 points per game and had a season-high 27 points against Providence.

Recruiting top-ranked players has plagued DePaul for years and with every coaching change DePaul has had, the question is, “can DePaul get more talent?”

“You need to talent to be really good, but in my opinion, talent is overrated,” Garrett said. “You can see that in college basketball with all the parity. You can see that with a team like Butler. They don’t have top 100 guys, but they do everything the right way.”

DePaul guard Billy Garrett Jr. (5) shoots against Providence guard Ryan Fazekas, left, as Providence's Kyron Cartwright (24) watches during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Rosemont, Ill. DePaul upset Providence, 77-70. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

DePaul guard Billy Garrett Jr. (5) shoots against Providence guard Ryan Fazekas, left, as Providence’s Kyron Cartwright (24) watches during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Rosemont, Ill. DePaul upset Providence, 77-70. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Doing it the right way circles back to the often mentioned changing of the culture. Although more than midway through his first season, Leitao admitted he’s still learning new aspects about his team.

It has led to Leitao throwing out different lineups, including eight different starting lineups. As of late, he’s gone with a preference of four guards and only one big, to some success.

“I’m comfortable with personalities and comfortable with the mixture of guys,” Leitao said. “The thing I’m still learning about them is how well certain guys will fit with other guys, what can and cannot happen as a result of that.”

As Leitao searches for the right match-ups, inconsistency has still reared its head. There are certainly times when the Blue Demons look like a bad basketball team, a run-of-the-mill experience for about the last 10 years.  Only eight wins this season further suggests that they are.

But yet there are moments when wins over teams like No. 11 Providence and then No. 20 George Washington display that DePaul is building towards something. This is the first time since the 2006-07 season, the last DePaul team that played consistently at a quality level, that DePaul has beaten two teams ranked in the top 25 during the same season.

“The lesson learned (against Providence) is that we stayed locked in for 40 minutes,” Henry said. “We played together for 40 minutes and stayed consistent. If we achieve that, then we’ll keep winning games.”

“There’s a difference in the way we go about things every day,” Garrett said. “It’s in the way we compete. There are no moral victories ever, but in the way we’ve competed that’s probably where we’ve felt the primary difference (compared to past seasons).  We’re working every day.”

Garrett said the most enjoyable aspect of DePaul’s win over Providence was the moment he walked into the locker room and saw his teammates’ faces knowing they got the win.

For a player who’s suffered 56 losses as a Blue Demon to 32 wins, Garrett said it hasn’t been easy, especially as he’s learned to become this team’s leader.

“I’ve grown as a leader. It’s one of the tougher jobs I’ve had in my basketball career, more so than anything physical,” Garrett said. “Because of the losing, the young guys and trying to change the culture. It’s really difficult, you know? But it’s making me a better basketball player and a better person, a better leader.”

Leitao was tasked with improving this season with mostly the same players from last season, outside of a major contributor in freshman Eli Cain.  DePaul won six conference games and finished at 12-20 in Purnell’s last year.  Even then, DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said that record underachieved.

In the moment, Leitao said his team was fighting in the Big East for opportunities to win and to earn respect.

“Winning, though, is not easy, even for the teams that do win a lot,” Leitao said. “We’ve got to not get ahead of ourselves and stay in the moment. We have to do all the things large and small that give us the best chance to win.”