Hanging prominently on the north side of the O’Malley Lewis Place Center on East Jackson Boulevard in Chicago is a billboard promoting the 2017-2018 DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball team.
With a red and black-hued Chicago skyline and ominous red sky lingering in the background, the billboard features a Blue Demon basketball player dunking on an imaginary basket in the left foreground. Large white block letters spelling out the words “Sweet Home Court Chicago” hang out in the right foreground.
The facial features of the player are dark and unfocused, but you can still just make out the identity of the high-flying dunker if you concentrate hard enough. It’s Blue Demon guard Max Strus, a Division II transfer who hasn’t played a single game in a DePaul uniform yet and is still coming to terms with the idea of being one of the poster children for this new-look Blue Demon team.
“It’s pretty cool,” Strus said when asked what it’s like to see himself on a Chicago billboard. “It’s unreal just seeing all these billboards of all of us, and everything that has been put into the stadium [Wintrust Arena]. It was just really nice of our school to do that for us, and we’re really looking forward to the season.”
Coming out of high school, the thought of seeing himself on a Chicago billboard was incomprehensible and seemingly unattainable. So was traveling to Madison Square Garden in New York to represent DePaul basketball at Big East Media Day like he did on Oct. 18. But now the kid from Hickory Hills, Ill. is poised to become one of the key pieces on a DePaul basketball team probing for relevance after ten straight seasons with a losing record and without a postseason tournament appearance.
Coaches, teammates, DePaul affiliated media, and fans have drooled over what Strus’ presence on this roster could mean for the Blue Demons this season. The 6-foot-6-inch guard is a sniper from 3-point land, but his game isn’t as one-dimensional as the stereotypical catch and shoot shooter. He can also spot up over defenders, splash mid-range jumpers, and is sneaky athletic and adept at cutting to the basket.
“Along with Eli [Cain], Max [Strus] is going to be a very integral part of what we do,” DePaul head basketball coach David Leitao said at the DePaul Tip-Off Luncheon at Wintrust Arena on Tuesday. “I think he has the makings of somebody who can put his fingerprints on this program short term and long term because of the kind of person he is, his work ethic, his talent level, and his desire to be good. I think we are going to be mentioning his name a whole lot all season long.”
In DePaul’s open practice at Wintrust Arena on Oct. 14, Strus turned a simple drill; start dribbling at half court, make a move around a cone at the 3-point line then finish at the rim; into his own personal dunk contest. On one occasion, he even lobbed the ball gently off the backboard and effortlessly corralled it mid-air for an emphatic alley-oop. But for all the hype he has generated amongst the Chicago basketball community, that excitement hasn’t spread to the national audience just yet.
The Big East coaches picked DePaul to finish last in the conference for the second season in a row. Neither Strus nor any of his teammates were predicted to win any of the Big East individual awards such as Player or Freshman of the Year. The annual preseason predictions from renowned college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy projected the Blue Demons to finish the season with ten wins.
Strus isn’t worried about any of these portentous predictions from the so-called experts. He’s used to flying under the radar.
Despite a standout career at Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Ill. where he averaged 19 points and nine rebounds per game and earned an Illinois Basketball Coaches Association All-State Third Team designation his senior year, Strus earned just one Division I scholarship offer from Chicago State. Not enamored with the idea of committing there, he instead chose Lewis University which is a Division II school in Romeoville, Ill.
In his first season at Lewis, Strus immediately made the starting lineup, averaging 13.3 points per game his freshman year. In his sophomore season, Strus averaged 20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game earning Division II All-American Honors and a spot on the watch list for the Bevo Francis Award presented annually to the top player in small school college basketball. Also during his sophomore season he broke the single-season scoring record at Lewis by pouring in 666 points.
Now Strus, a highly decorated Division II athlete, must show that he can replicate this success at the Division I level.
“I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder since coming out of high school,” Strus said when asked if there’s extra incentive for him to play well at the Division I level since he comes from a Division II program. “No Division I schools ever recruited me [except Chicago State as previously mentioned]. So, going Division II really put that extra chip on my shoulder and I carry that with me wherever I go.”
Internally, the Blue Demons are confident in themselves. Spurred on by the palpable energy the new Wintrust Arena environment has created, Strus and his teammates believe they will turn heads in a good way with the quality of their play this season.
“I don’t think anybody really expects anything from us, but they should and I think we are going to surprise some people,” Strus said. “Our expectation is just to win overall, but I think our end goal is to make the NCAA tournament this year.”
Now entering year three of the current rebuild under Leitao, a restless Blue Demon fanbase expects substantive improvement after years of watching their team dwell in the cellar of the Big East Conference. Can Leitao, Strus, and the rest of his teammates deliver? Stay tuned this season to find out.