DePaul shows growth through non-conference schedule

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DePaul shows growth through non-conference schedule

(Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

(Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

(Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

(Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

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A non-conference schedule that began by unveiling their new arena against No. 14 Notre Dame wrapped up Thursday evening with an 83-66 victory over Miami (OH) RedHawks (7-5) for DePaul’s sixth win in their last seven games.

After starting 1-4 in a tough early stretch of games, the Blue Demons (7-5) rebounded with their first five game winning streak since 2012. DePaul head coach Dave Leitao says he’s sensed his team received a noticeable confidence boost from the longest winning streak for any player on the roster during their time with the program after some tough moments in recent years.

“We’ve been through some things, so that gives them something to grab hold of and grow from,” Leitao said. “But I’ve said this from day one that I really really liked this group, I enjoy being in the gym and being around them every day and I think they feel the same way about each other and so it makes growth a little more palatable and hopefully sustainable.”

Senior forward Tre’Darius McCallum is averaging 11.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game through non-conference play. (Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

Learning from these tough losses is a big reason senior Tre’Darius McCallum believes this team has developed such quick chemistry and head into conference play on a high note.

“Just a lot of team chemistry, just everyone coming together,” McCallum said. “We had a lot of tough losses so just everyone coming into a big circle and being ready to play.”

With graduate transfer Marin Maric and fellow transfers Max Strus and Austin Grandstaff headlining a group of veterans eligible to play, junior Eli Cain noted veteran leadership has been key in helping the younger players produce in bigger roles.

“I think we’ve taken a really big stride,” Cain said. “But I think the main thing that goes to that is the older guys like Marin, Joe and Peter they made it easy for the younger guys and older guys to just transition, made it easier for guys to want to play for one another.”

Devin Gage tore his Achilles vs. Central Connecticut Dec. 6. (Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

This non-conference slate has, however, not come without challenges. Earlier this month, the Blue Demons announced point guard Devin Gage would miss the rest of the season with a ruptured Achilles. This has forced Eli Cain to handle more of the ball handling duties, something that has affected the rest of the roster as well.

“It’s not just that position because Eli has moved to play that position more and what he goes through in terms of when do I score or when do I distribute,” Leitao said. “But then Max takes on a different role and the front court guys take on a different role because they are either playing more minutes or playing alongside a guy they wouldn’t naturally play in front of or behind so team wise we’ve had to make some adjustments.”

Reinforcements are on the way, however, as DePaul announced shortly before their matchup against Miami (OH) that New Zealand’s U19 national team guard Flynn Cameron will join the program starting this season. Cameron may be asked to handle some of these ball handling duties and allow Cain to move back to more of a scoring role.

After a slow start to the season, DePaul’s head coach has also been pleased with the recent growth offensively with his squad averaging close to 75 points per game this season, while shooting 43 percent from the field.

“I said at the very outset that I thought we would be much better offensively and the stats didn’t prove it out and we weren’t shooting the ball well and scoring the ball as well,” Leitao said. “We’ve started to get better and that was something that I wasn’t really concerned about, but it was on my mind.”

Junior guard Eli Cain is averaging 12.1 points per game this season. (Photo Courtesy of DePaul Athletics).

Defensively, coach Leitao’s squad has been good all year holding opponents to 67 points per game, while the field goal percentage allowed has dropped steadily in recent weeks.

“I think their attention to detail on that side of the ball has been much better,” Leitao said. “I think our camaraderie and our chemistry and our collective want to do the right thing is growing.”

With a relatively successful non-conference slate now in the rear view mirror, a challenging conference slate gets started right after the Christmas break with two top 10 matchups against No. 1 Villanova and No. 9 Xavier. With this challenging start, the focus now centers on putting all the pieces together and competing in a challenging Big East.

“I think the thing I’d like to see now is that it all starts to look the way we want it to look,” Leitao said. “Then you can kind of go from there in terms of areas game-by-game or week-by-week that you want to get better at.”

After prolonged dry spells hurt resulted in losses to Michigan State, Illinois and Northwestern, putting together more consistent performances is also something Cain believes the Blue Demons need to do more of in the coming months.

“We start out a lot of games really hot, we have our spurts,” Cain said, “But it’s tough to have spurts in the Big East, you need to have that same focus, same intensity for the whole 40 minutes.”

The Blue Demons begin conference play next Wednesday hosting Villanova at 7:30 p.m. CT at Wintrust Arena.