Men’s basketball points to close games as progress

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Barring a miracle in next month’s Big East Tournament, the DePaul Blue Demons probably won’t be dancing in this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

However, that doesn’t mean the Blue Demons aren’t showing considerable progress on the court. Three of their 12 Big East losses have come by a combined seven points against Big East heavyweights Georgetown, Butler and reigning national champions Villanova.

These games point directly to the progress head coach Dave Leitao has made in his second year as the Blue Demons’ head coach.

Leitao, who coached the Blue Demons to their last tournament appearance in 2004, says progress is measured in a, “lot of different ways,” not necessarily just by wins or losses.

At the time of this writing, DePaul currently sits at 1-12 in the Big East and just 8-18 overall. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story of the team.

The Blue Demons are one of the younger teams in the conference with only one senior, Billy Garrett, Jr. in the starting lineup.The Blue Demons are led on offense by sophomore Eli Cain, who leads the team with 15.8 points per game.

As Cain progresses, so too do the Blue Demons. Robert O’Neill, co-managing editor of SB Nation’s Big East Coast Bias blog said the Blue Demons are, “absolutely,” Cain’s team going forward.

O’Neill also added that DePaul’s narrow loss at Villanova in December represents the, “absolute best that DePaul can be,” while DePaul was, “the better team for 43 of the 45 minutes,” in their home overtime loss to Butler in January.

Getting over that hump is a major obstacle for the Blue Demons going forward. Getting a landmark win against ranked opponents brings prestige and publicity to the program. While it’s not the ultimate goal, it represents a milestone on DePaul’s journey back to national relevance.

O’Neill said that one of DePaul’s biggest challenges lies in the fact that they play in such a top-heavy conference.

When Leitao led the Blue Demons to their last NCAA tournament, he did so in Conference USA, not the Big East (DePaul joined the Big East in 2005). 

Villanova 's Jalen Brunson (1) drives and scores past DePaul 's Joe Hanel (33) and Chris Harrison-Docks (51) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, in Rosemont, Ill. Villanova won 75-62. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Villanova ‘s Jalen Brunson (1) drives and scores past DePaul ‘s Joe Hanel (33) and Chris Harrison-Docks (51) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday. Villanova won 75-62. (Photo courtesy of Charles Rex Arbogast / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

O’Neill says DePaul could win four to six conference games if they played in another, perhaps more balanced conference such as the SEC or the Pac-12.

Indeed, this is an exciting time for the program, which is leaving Rosemont’s Allstate Arena after this season after 37 years for the brand new Wintrust Arena located in downtown Chicago. Both O’Neill and Leitao agree that the new arena will give the Blue Demons a boost in recruiting.

While the arena isn’t completely built yet, O’Neill said it should have, “pretty cool bells and whistles in locker rooms and other team areas,” adding that, “every little edge you can get helps.”

Leitao said he, “constantly,” talks to potential recruits about the new arena, taking them to the construction site and showing them photos of what the new arena will look like. Leitao added that the new arena represents the change happening within the program.

For the players, those close calls against the conference’s upper echelon point to what the team could be. For every close loss against Villanova, DePaul has also suffered heavy losses against top tier opponents like Creighton and Seton Hall.

In those games, the Blue Demons suffer from what junior Joe Hanel called a “lack of focus,” which is common among less experienced teams like DePaul. 

“We have to put together 40 minutes if we want to win,” Hanel said. “It can’t be 35 minutes or 34 minutes.”

Freshman Brandon Cyrus said he’s noticed, “increased competitiveness,” in practices, adding that, “guys are just trying to make each other better.”

Cyrus also represents the kind of player Leitao is trying to recruit into the program. The Canadian native played high school basketball at La Lumiere in La Porte, IN., an area Leitao has focused on recruiting. Cyrus was considered by many to be the best of DePaul’s 2016 recruiting class.

While Chicago has built a reputation for producing excellent high school recruits, DePaul is at a disadvantage.

Leitao said that before he can land Chicago-based recruits, he has to “give them a reason to stay here.” Leitao faces a long road back for DePaul, but if the program can build off the potential they’ve shown this season, then there truly is hope for the near future. O’Neill says that DePaul could be a solid team in three to four seasons, but they face an uphill battle in a conference that already features perennial NCAA tournament hopefuls like Villanova, Butler and Creighton.

However, DePaul will have to overcome the loss of Billy Garrett, Jr. next season. Garrett, Jr. has been a team leader since his freshman season and recently became the all-time leader in free throws for DePaul.

O’Neill, Hanel, Leitao and Cyrus all agreed that it will be a team effort to replace Garrett, Jr. both on the court and in the locker room. As Cain and Cyrus develop, look for them to become potential leaders going forward.